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Tag Archive for Buenos Aires

From Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro

It has actually been a few days since I arrived back in Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires but a combination of spending a couple of days in Terespolis in the hills outside Rio and Christmas has dealt a blow to my good intention of keeping this blog relatively up to date.  Nevertheless, I hope you find my account of visiting Buenos Aires of interest…

After a painless 90 minute boat journey across from the Uruguayan town of Colonia on the other side of the Argentina-Uruguay river plate, I arrived in the early evening in Puerto Madero, the main port in Buenos Aires.  After hailing a taxi, I headed across to my hotel (the affordable, hospitable and comfortable Aldeano II) a stone’s throw from the Argentine National Congress to dump my bags and relax for a while.

Given that Uruguayan cash machines only appear to dispense bank notes of relatively high worth, I was unwilling to take any more money out at the port in Colonia to buy a substantial lunch.  The result of this meant that the residual coins I was able to scrabble together were only enough to buy a measly bottle of water and a rather forlorn-looking croissant.  As such, after a quick rest at the hotel, I was ready to go in search of good.  Having had such a glut of steak while in Montevideo, however, I couldn’t cope with yet another identikit red meat dinner – however delicious they might be.

My mind turned to conversation I’d had with a friend in the summer where he mentioned that Argentina was home to a large community of diaspora Armenians who are hugely influential in economic, political and cultural circles in Buenos Aires.  As such, I concluded, there must be a number of Armenian restaurants in the city.

A quick scan of Google threw up a restaurant called ‘Sarkis’ in Villa Crespo, close to the fashionable Palermo Viejo district.  It was a fairly drab evening outside with some light rain so I thought it safe to ignore the warnings about long queues to get a table and chance it.  Arriving at the restaurant and walking past the fifty or so people queuing patiently to get a table, I walked up to the waiter guarding the front door and greeted him in Armenian (“barev!”), hoping that this brazen approach would be enough to help me skip the huge line.  For whatever reason, it appeared to work and I was ushered to a table in the corner of the restaurant within the next ten minutes.  I muttered a hearty “shnorhakalutyun” (thank you) to the manager.

Having secured a table I was, for want of a better term, hoist by my own petard in that I was handed an Armenian language copy of the menu.  They were either attempting to call my bluff or assumed I was actually Armenian!  Either way, my Armenian menu was quickly swapped for an English version.

In short, the food was exceptional and the service brilliant.  The basturma had a great smoky taste, the lavash was light and fresh and the lamb khorovadz was as good as any I’ve had this side of the South Caucasus.  Eating Armenian food in Argentina might seem like a strange thing to do but I couldn’t possibly recommend ‘Sarkis’ any more.

Free walking tour

There’s no more appealing word than “free” in the English dictionary so, when I noticed that there was a free walking tour around Buenos Aires, I immediately marked it down as something I would like to do.  (If you want to read no further than this, you can find details of this excellent and highly commendable tour here).

I arrived, as advertised, at the Plaza Italia close to the centre of the city as advertised at 11am the next morning and joined a diverse group of other tourists from the United States, Canada and Australia under the statue of Garibaldi on his horse.  We were soon joined by the English tour guide Jonathan who has been based in Buenos Aires for a number of years and conducts a free tour each day, asking only that those who take part are generous in their tips at the end.

While I’d had the chance to explore the city a bit before, it was a terrific way of getting to know the “real” Buenos Aires beyond simply seeing the main squares, boulevards and tourist attractions.

Given that taxi prices are ridiculously low in much of South America (apart from Brazil where, like everything else, they’ve become a rip-off), I’m often adverse to using public transport when a taxi can get you from “A” to “B” for only a couple of pounds.  It was therefore quite an experience to be taken on the British-built Buenos Aires metro system, riding along in the wooden tube carriages and dodging a litany of pick-pockets along the way.

Another highlight of the tour was visiting the Abasto neighbourhood where the famous tango singer Carlos Gardel has lived and where an entire industry has grown up around his memory, including bustling theatres and shops selling tango outfits, as well as the numerous street murals commemorating his life.

In Abasto we also learned about the legend of Gaucho Gil, a legendary figure in the country’s popular culture who has come to be regarded as a saint by many Argentines.

To explain Gaucho Gil’s story in a nutshell, he was a farm-worker on the estate of an extremely wealthy widow with whom he gradually entered into a relationship.  The wealthy widow was said to be obsessed with Gil, much to the annoyance of both her brothers and the local police chief, who had designs on the said widow.  In a fit of anger, the police chief ordered Gil that he must leave the village and never come back or else he would pay with his life.  Gil then spent the subsequent twenty years living a nomadic existence in various parts of Argentina, performing various Robin Hood-style acts as he went.  Gil eventually grew bored of this existence and returned to the village.  When the police chief found out that he was in town, he immediately went to confront Gil and order his to leave.  In the meantime, Gil had heard on the grapevine that the police chief’s son had been taken violently ill that day.  Upon encountering the police chief on the road, Gil told him that if he were to say a prayer for him, the son’s life would be spared.   The police chief had not heard of his son’s illness, rubbished Gil’s suggestion and slit his throat, killing him.  Upon returning to the village, the police chief found out that Gil had been telling the truth and immediately said prayer, repenting for what he had done.  His son was then automatically resurrected and the police chief spent the rest of his days letting everyone know about Gil’s saintly credentials.

The Catholic Church has refused to beatify Gil, yet this has not stopped many Argentineans holding him in very high regard.  After having it pointed out to me, I noticed that a large number of cars and shops have red ribbons tied to them; the official mark of Gaucho Gil, modelled after his bandana.  There are many shrines (such as the one pictured) around the country and prayers can be offered to Gil for any reason, including calling upon him to heal a family member or bring you wealth or praying for bad fortune to fall upon your enemies.   If Gil was to be formally ‘adopted’ as a saint by the Catholic Church, his ability to conduct ‘dark’ acts would be muted.  As such, many are content to see his ‘saintly’ status remain in limbo.

Plaza do Mayo

As our tour guide Jonathan told us, no visit to Buenos Aires is complete without a visit to the Plaza do Mayo.  The square contains some of the most famous buildings in the city, not least the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral and Casa Rosada (“Pink House”), the seat of the Argentine Presidency.

The most interesting thing about the Plaza do Mayo from my point of view, though, is the ongoing presence of the ‘Mothers of the Plaza do Mayo’, a group which sprung up in the late 1970s in opposition to the military dictatorship to demand answers from the government about ‘disappeared’ loved ones.  The number of people murdered by the Argentine military junta that ruled until 1983 is a matter of some debate but estimates suggest the number may be as high as 30,000, of which 9,000 remain unaccounted for.

Each Thursday at 15:30 the ‘Mothers of Plaza do Mayo’ continue to gather in the square to demand action from the government of the day to do more to investigate the fate of their loved ones.  By pure coincidence I happened to be in the square at the time, so was able to witness the incredibly humbling spectacle of many, mainly elderly people marching and holding up pictures of loved ones whose fate remains unclear (read: whose bodies have never been recovered).  Given the age profile of the crowd, I can only conclude that many thousands more parents have gone to their grave never having received answers from the government.

While on the square, I also had the chance to hear about another group, the ‘Grandmothers of Plaza do Mayo’.  It is said that, under the military dictatorship, 400 pregnant women who opposed the regime were allowed to give birth to their children and murdered shortly after; their babies being handed to supporters of the regime.  Having constructed a DNA database of all 400 of these women, the group allows those who have doubts as to whether those claiming to be their mothers really did give birth to them to have tests to establish whether not they were the children of one of the 400.  If they are found to be, the people who raised them can face trial for the kidnapping of a child and being accessories to murder.  To date, a total of 107 cases have been identified.  I cannot think of a more chilling discovery to make than that of those you had always thought were your parents having been complicit in the murder of your birth mother.

San Telmo, Puerto Madero and Recoleta

Aside from the serious nature of Plaza do Mayo, Buenos Aires is a terrific place to socialise.

San Telmo is amongst the oldest neighbourhoods in the city and, along with Puerto Madero (of which more in a moment), my favourite part of Buenos Aires.  After stepping out of the crowded Plaza do Mayo, you are within seconds transported to quiet, shady streets lined with historic buildings housing bars, restaurants and artists studios.  To my mind, it’s one of the most European-feeling parts of the city with a distinctly colonial feel.  Walking around San Telmo, you get some insight into how it must have felt to live in Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century when Argentina was seemingly-irreversibly on the up and the country ranked 6th in the global league table of most prosperous nations.  It is one of the few parts of town where genuine thought and care appears to have been put into maintaining historic buildings, as opposed to letting them decay.

Not far from the colonial-style San Telmo is Puerto Madero, Argentina’s main port.  While it remains in active use as the main terminal through which people and goods enter and leave Argentina, the most historic part of the port has now been given over to tourism.  Speaking to friends who visited the city twenty years ago, they described how the port area was considered a squalid and dangerous area of the city.  Thankfully, the regeneration of the area means it is now home to the best hotels in the city and a string of upmarket restaurants catering for tourists and the elite of Buenos Aires society.  As the photos below show, it’s a fantastic place to go for a walk but, if you intend to eat, make sure you bring credit cards!

No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without a visit to Recoleta, a historic part of the city which is home to the famous cemetery that provides a final resting place for Eva Peron.  If you haven’t been to a Catholic graveyard in South America before, then it’s quite an astonishing sight.  While in the UK we are used to seeing relatively simple gravestones, even for the most significant of historic figures, the mausoleums constructed to house the graves of the Argentina elite are on an unmatched scale of grandeur and pomposity.  Sadly, my camera ran out of battery half way through visiting the cemetery but I managed to capture a few shots which I hope underscore this observation:


Political pygmies and social inequality

For most part, Buenos Aires is a middle-class city with living standards that are comparable with most European cities.  I would say, however, that the feeling of gaping social inequalities is stronger in Argentina than any other country I’ve visited in South America with the exception of only Brazil.

The whole city has a slightly uneasy air about it.  Upon first glance, Buenos Aires has a sense of style, sophistication and self-confidence not seen elsewhere in South America with immaculately-maintained tree-lined avenues and expensive boutiques dominating the centre of the city.  Upon slightly deeper examination, it’s clear that the city is crumbling; architecturally and socially.

While repeated waves of Peronist Presidents have issued lofty pledges to address these problems, a quick visit to the square in front of the National Congress very clearly indicates the lack of progress they have made.  No more than fifty metres from the Congress, the square is home to semi-permanent tent city filled with homeless people are downtrodden to the point they don’t even bother pestering tourists and the prosperous Portitos who pass them by for money.

The conflict over the Falkland Islands is, in 2012, considered by many in the UK to be a long-ago fought conflict of little significance today.  In many respects, though, the combination of arrogance, aggression and petty nationalism demonstrated by General General Galtieri and his military junta in 1982 has characterised Argentine politics ever since.

Looking at the country’s most recent leaders, we’ve witnessed the Presidencies of the supposedly ‘reformist’ yet ultimately vainglorious Carlos Menem, the gombeenism of the late Nestor Kirchner and the ludicrous Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner who not only cooks the books to hide the country’s spiralling inflation rates yet resorts to demagogic nationalism to bolster her popularity.  Her ‘door-stepping’ of David Cameron in a corridor at the G20 to discuss the status of the Falkland Islands was not the actions of a respectable head of state but rather those of a 1980s union official.

While the stellar growth of the Brazilian economy has kept Argentina’s economy afloat for the past few years, international financial institutions steer resolutely clear of investments in the country as a result of its decision to default on its debt obligations in the late 1990s.  With Brazilian economic growth projected to fall to only 1% next year, tough times lie ahead for Argentina.

I pity the people of Argentina – a proud, educated and passionate people – that they have allowed themselves to be ruled by such pygmies.

Without prejudice

While Foz do Iguacu, Asuncion and Montevideo were all places I was visiting for the first time, I had the change to visit Buenos Aires three years ago and had already seen many of the city’s main tourist attractions.   I’m extremely glad I came again though as the trip was a great opportunity to get to know the city well and go beyond some of the more establish tourist trails.

One question I was repeatedly asked by friends when returning from Buenos Aires for the first time and expect to be asked again was whether or not there is any residual resentment towards the British with regards to the Falklands War.  While I’m sure there is the odd person out there who harbours a grudge, just as there are some dinosaurs in the UK who still spew hatred against Germans over the Second World War, I’ve never encountered anything other than generosity and kindness when in Argentina.  This is true for everyone else I’ve spoken to who has had the chance to spend time in the country, so don’t let any fears in this respect put you off.

From Montevideo to Buenos Aires

I had read before coming to Uruguay that the country’s citizens deeply resent either their country or their people being compared with Paraguayans.  Without wishing to enter into a debate about the merits and disadvantages of each country, it would be easy to understand their dislike for such a comparison for no other reason than the two people have nothing whatsoever in common.

The easiest way to compare the two would be to say that Paraguay is, like Brazil or Colombia, an explicitly Latin American country in respect of its culture, customs and ethnicity of its people while Uruguay is, like Argentina, an isolated slice of Europe rather uncomfortably stranded at the fag-end of South America.

In many respects, the rather European and comparatively opulent style of Montevideo made it seem a little unremarkable when compared to the “wild west” nature of Asuncion.  It was, however, a very pleasant place to spend a few days, even if it did an certain air of familiarity to it.

The Old Town and Port

Having arrived into town quite late at night and being unable to get to sleep as a result of the prehistoric conditions in my hotel (of which more later), I had a relatively slow start to my first day in Montevideo.

After a late breakfast and few plans as to what I was actually going to do with the day, I made a rough plan to go and see some of the city’s tourist attractions.  Given that my hotel was located just off one of the city’s main roads, I decided to take a walk around the area near my hotel in order to do some people-watching and soak up the atmosphere.   This turned out to be quite a good plan as my random wanderings led to me, after just a few minutes walk, to the city’s set-piece square, the Plaza Independencia:



Before coming to the square I had already concluded that there was relatively little about Montevideo that could be described as particularly Latin American.  Sure, there were a few traders dotted around the edge of the square selling traditional goods but the majority of the buildings – from the glass-edifice of the President’s office to the peculiar Palacio Salvio – would not have been out of place in Europe.

On the western side of the Plaza was a large ornamental gate which marked the formal entrance into the city’s Old Town; a pleasant mix of modern boutiques, souvenir shops and cafes with shady terraces that looked like highly agreeable places to spend a few hours.

Eventually, I came to the square that was home to the City’s Metropolitan Cathedral.  While I always enjoy visiting cathedrals when on trips – if only to look at their astonishing architecture – I was particularly keen to see how the building compared to that I had seen in Asuncion.  The two buildings could not have been more different.  While Asuncion’s cathedral had an almost Protestant air to it with bare white walls, sparse decorations and seemingly-acres of open space, Montevideo’s was the very epitome of how you’d expect a Catholic church to look.   An imposing grey structure with thick walls to keep the building cool during the ravages of the Uruguayan summer, the floors were covered in ornate tiles and its ruby red and marble walls were covered in elaborate monuments to saints and fallen heroes from throughout the country’s history.

A few minutes on from the cathedral I came to the city’s port district.  After a couple of wrong turns that took me to a part of the seafront filled with crumbling buildings that was clearly not intended as a place for tourists to visit, I found myself back on the main thoroughfare.  While the port itself is largely devoid of charm, largely because it is active use as the main means by which people and commercial goods made their way between Uruguay and Argentina, its surroundings are well worth a visit.  I was particularly taken with the Mercados do Portos, a former fishmongers’ hall which is now home to twenty or so bars and restaurants serving a delicious range of fresh fish and barbequed meat dishes.

After a couple of hours of rest back at the hotel, I returned to the Mercados do Portos in search of dinner.  As it was a Monday evening and very, very few tourists appeared to be around, a lot of restaurants had taken the opportunity to cut their losses and close early.  I was more than a little sceptical about those places that were still open; concluding their elaborate décor and the warm welcome I received at the door for so much as looking at the menu in the window would result in their being tourist traps with disappointing food and extortionate prices.  Nevertheless, I settled on a place called El Peregrino.

I shouldn’t have been so cynical.  El Peregrino was, in a word, outstanding.  Controlled by a craggy-faced old-timer with a name like Giovanni, Mario or Serafino, I was immediately handed a platter of cheeses, chutneys and garnishes which could never easily have served as a meal in themselves.  Indeed, Giovanni looked a little disappointed when I only wanted the Uruguayan Ham platter as a starter.  He quickly perked up when I ordered a steak which he enthusiastically claimed was “from his brother’s farm”. (I am sure this comment was deployed for marketing purposes and his brother actually works in the kitchen, along with the rest of the extended family but anyway…).  Without going into too much further depth, the food was remarkable and the bill, at £25, outstanding:


Full of steak and fuelled by the type of joy de vivre one can only get from a good bottle of Argentine Malbec, I retired to bed a happy man!

Walk to the river-front

I must confess that, after a day in Montevideo, I was beginning to run out “tourist attractions” to visit.   I was starting to get a bit bored.   Rather than let this developing sense of boredom develop into a sense of full-scale apathy that could have seen me kill the remaining couple of days aimlessly surfing the internet, I found a map of the city and decided to go for a long walk in order to see a bit more of the place.

The most logical route I found which would allow me to cover a lot of ground and also get to see as much of the famous river promenade as possible. NB: I say “river promenade” but, for all intents and purposes, it is a coast-line.  The river plate (“Rio de la Plata”) that runs for 290 miles between Uruguay and Argentina which, at the mouth of the river, reaches a distance between the two countries of 140 miles.

After having spent much of the past two weeks grappling with the searing heat, the fresh breeze coming off the river was a more than welcome arrival.  The mixture of breeze and slightly overcast day meant I was able to cover a huge amount of ground without so much as breaking a sweat.  At half-kilometre intervals along the promenade were posts marking the distance walked; something which encouraged me to set myself a goal of covering 10km before dinner.   My route was as follows:

If you’re in Montevideo I would strongly recommend following the same trail in order to ensure you cast the net a little wider than just the river-front areas closest to the city centre.  Indeed, the parts of the river-front closest to the main port have very little charm about them with a string of rather unpleasant high-rise buildings providing the backdrop for what is essentially just a long slab of concrete abutting an expanse of murky, brown water.

It’s only when you’ve walked a couple of miles along the riverfront that you come to a string of very pleasant parks, yacht clubs and a string of memorials commemorating Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi and the victims of the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide:



After having covered ten miles on foot, I didn’t feel like walking back so jumped on a bus back to Plaza Independencia that cost less than £1 and took about half an hour.

Don’t stay at the Hotel Austral

Before I mention Colonia – a beautiful port town that links Uruguay to Argentina – I just wanted to give a dishonourable mention to the place I stayed: the Hotel Austral (or “Hotel Awful” as I mentally nicknamed it).

To be clear, I should have known it would be bad.  After all, it was only £25 a night.  But I didn’t realise it would be that bad.

Before I launch a full-frontal assault on the establishment, let me first highlight some of its positive points.  Or rather it’s only positive point.  The Hotel Austral is supremely well located, literally a stone’s throw from most of the cities main thoroughfares and less than ten minutes walk to both the Old Town and the riverfront.  There are some excellent cafes, bars and ornate squares just seconds away.  If you’re somebody who can overlook almost anything negative about a hotel as long as it is well situated, then the Hotel Austral is the place for you.  The breakfast, particularly the freshly-squeezed orange juice, is also very pleasant.


If you are fond of even the most basic of creature comforts, such as having running water in your bedroom that doesn’t have an unwholesome pong to it or a mattress that doesn’t look like a relic recovered from the top of Mount Ararat after an archaeological expedition to recover items that were onboard Noah’s Ark, then this isn’t the place for you.

After checking in, I headed up to the room in the gloriously retro lift which involved having to both close the door behind you and close a wire-mesh gate before it leapt, with surprising speed, up to my fifth floor room.  Except it wasn’t “retro”, the lift just hadn’t been replaced since the mid-50s.

Entering the room, I was almost overcome with a smell of mustiness and damp.  Thirsty, I turned on the tap in the bathroom to encounter the aforementioned pongy water which smelt like a mixture of gone-off eggs and one of those sulphurous health spas luvvies adore going to.

I dumped my bags and marched downstairs to request a bottle of water, only for the duty manager that the hotel “doesn’t stock those anymore”.   Exasperated, I resolved to try and find some clean water somewhere.   Anywhere.  Eventually, I found my way to the breakfast room on the first floor where, through a glass door, I could see a water cooler.  Salvation!  Treading carefully, I managed to pilfer a jug from the unlocked kitchen attached to the room, filled it and carried my precious Amber Nectar to my room.  Each morning, before I left the hotel for the day, I hid the jug in my suitcase so that it wouldn’t be collected by a cleaner.  Each night, I performed by ritual of forcing my way into the breakfast room in order to access something the United Nations describes as a fundamental human right: clean drinking water.  You shouldn’t have to do that in a hotel, even when it only costs you £25 a night!

I probably ought to have read the reviews of the hotel more closely before booking.   I also should have avoided reading the reviews of the hotel after I had already checked in, for one of the reviewers mentioned a horrific experience of having been woken in her room in the early hours covered in bed bugs.  While I am sure I suffered from nothing other than mosquito bites during my time in Montevideo, the very thought of them possibly being present in the hotel led me to conduct lengthy, Google Image Search-led investigations as to what could have caused the bites.  This sense of irrational paranoia meant each of my three night’s sleep were interrupted several times by me abruptly turning on the lights to check whether or not I was under attack by nocturnal carnivores.

For the sake of your ability to drink clean water and broader mental health, don’t stay at the Hotel Austral!

Visit Colonia

There are several ways to reach Buenos Aires from Montevideo.  The first and fastest option is to take a 45 minute plane journey across the river plate, yet this also the most expensive.  The second is to take roughly a three-hour boat trip from the main port into the centre of Montevideo directly to Puerto Madero in Uruguay.  It’s a relatively expensive journey, costing roughly £50.  The third and by far the cheapest option is to take a bus a couple of hours across the country to the port of Colonia and to then catch a passenger ferry to Buenos Aires from there.  I went for the third option, largely because it allowed me to spend a couple of hours outside of the confines of metropolitan Montevideo to see a bit of the Uruguayan countryside from the bus window and a few of the sights in Colonia.

The bus journey itself is perfectly pleasant, stretching through the Montevideo suburbs and through some damp-looking countryside that reminded me of the Welsh Marches before ending up at Colonia’s bus station.  Thankfully, the bus station isn’t miles from the town centre as it is most South American countries but within a couple of minutes walk of both the Old Town and the passenger port where you can pick up your ferry to Buenos Aires.

Colonia del Sacramento (‘Colony of the Saints’) to give it its full name is a place is one of the most historically significant places in South America with its ownership having alternated on several occasions between Brazil and Uruguay.  Indeed, the Brazilian – or rather Portuguese – influence on the town is very clear to see in the traditional architecture of both private homes and tourist attractions such as the historic lighthouse and Basilica.   My time in Colonia before having to set sail for Buenos Aires was very limited but I managed to take some quick photographs:

I regret not having more time to explore the town and would recommend that if anyone else finds themselves connecting to Buenos Aires from Uruguay, they might consider spending the night before the journey at one of the many very comfortable-looking guest-houses dotted around the Old Town.

As I write this, I can see the Buenos Aires skyline fast-approaching in the distance.  Having been to BA before, I’m a lot more familiar with the city than I have been with other places I’ve visited during this trip.  Nevertheless, I look forward to covering lots of new ground, safe in the knowledge that a 40-mile stretch of water now stands between me and the Hotel Austral!