Buenos Aires (BA), translated in English means “good airs”, is a multicultural city that has attracted immigrants from all over the world making it a melting pot of diverse ethnic and religious groups. This football crazy city in Argentina has seen the likes of football heroes Diego Maradona and Messi achieve cult status. The city has a vibrant nightlife, with its love affair with the sensual tango, varied and extensive theatre outings and post-midnight bashes in bars with music and dance on full throttle. But what surprises one is the city’s emphasis on design which is evident in its architecture, the design installations in beautifully landscaped parks, the aesthetic street and graffiti art as well as the creativity in the flea markets and design galleries.
Argentinians love to read, and Buenos Aires boasts of the highest number of bookshops per capita, around 25 per 100,000 inhabitants, in the world. The Argentinians are so passionate about everything and deeply polarised that there is an implicit understanding amongst friends never to discuss football, politics and religion to avoid fights and to maintain peace and harmony!
The five-day trip to this Latino city was an award holiday that my husband had received for meeting his business numbers and for his exemplary performance. As his spouse or ‘significant other’, I was privileged to accompany him. After almost 24 hours of travel, including a 17-hour flight from Dubai to BA with a stopover at Rio, we arrived at night.
The first thing that struck us on entering BA was a very European feel which the city exudes thanks to the architecture and infrastructure of majestic promenades, landscaped parks and so on which was a far cry from the stereotypical Latino city one imagines. What the Colosseum is to Rome and the Opera House is to Sydney, The Obelisk is to Buenos Aires. This iconic structure in the shape of a giant pencil is in the Plaza de la Republica and was built in 1936 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Buenos Aires.
My husband, an ardent runner, was eager to explore the city while running through its lanes and parks the next morning. What was surprising was the respect that the city has for runners and cyclists with designated lanes allotted to them. While exploring the city one can enjoy the art installations or sculptures every few meters that rightfully give it the tag of a ‘City of Design’ by UNESCO. Eduardo Catalano’s iconic 65-foot metal flower ‘Floralis Generica’ that blooms during the day and closes at night is one such example.
We took several guided tours of the city which is divided into barrios or districts. On day one we visited Puerto Madero, the business centre of the city, that overlooks the Rio de la Plata – the junction of the Uruguay and Parana rivers. This district is home to the tallest skyscrapers with skyrocketing property rates. It’s also where the Puente de la Mujer (‘Bridge of the Woman’) a bridge that resembles a couple dancing the tango is located.
We attended the cocktail reception and welcome dinner at the yacht club. When we stepped out on the deck, it was chilly and cold, but the breath-taking sight of the illuminated buildings that dotted the skyline was reminiscent of what we had seen along the HongKong bay and in London along the Thames river. Although BA has a coastline, what is surprising is that there are no beaches with the nearest at a drive of 6 hours. Hence the locals prefer to hop on a short flight to Rio, which is known for its beaches!
The following day we visited the Palermo district, which is where the new lot of talented designers have flocked as real estate became unaffordable in the heart of the city. Restaurants and bars, boutiques and galleries lined this quaint, vibrant district with its cobbled streets. We visited a flea market here and were pleasantly surprised at the array of accessories, textiles, clothing and paintings on display. It made me want just to retire there and learn the various art and craft forms bidding farewell to the routine, mundane existence of home and work that we are slaves of.
Buenos Aires is known for its wines, especially those made with Malbec grape. So next on the itinerary for our group of awardees was a wine tasting event. Despite being a teetotaler, it was interesting to watch and learn the nuances of the ‘bouquet and tasting notes’ of different vintage red, white and sparkling wines under the tutelage of our wine expert and sommeliers. A combination of climatic and soil conditions, the altitude at which the vines grow, time of harvesting determine the sensory characteristics of the wine. We were escorted to a sit down three-course meal dinner after the wine tasting.
Steak is the undisputed favourite in Argentina and is served with vegetables, bread and of course wine. Since the Italian immigrants came to Argentina, they brought with them the pizza which is especially cheesy here. Mate is another traditional caffeine-rich drink that is a favourite with the locals. The dried herbal leaves are put in a hollow calabash gourd pot, and hot water is poured over it. A special straw or ‘bombilla’ with tiny holes at the end, functions as a sieve that only allows the liquid to be sipped. Blood sausage, yes sausage stuffed with blood, is another local dish which the brave hearts may want to try!
The following day was earmarked for exploring the city and its various monuments. The first on our list was the Evita Museum which chronicles the life of Eva Peron, the much loved yet controversial, wife of the Argentine President Juan Perón. Born out of wedlock, she went on to become an actress and later the first lady who championed the cause of women’s right to vote and set up homes for single mothers and orphanages. The museum has her dresses, accessories and jewellery on display and photographs and videos from her life. It brought back memories of the musical play Evita, directed by noted Indian theatre personality and ad guru Alyque Padamsee. It had Sharon Prabhakar playing the titular role and crooning ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’, that was a rage when I was a teenager.
Next on the list was the La Boca district, the old port which witnessed the influx of immigrants from Italy and other European countries. The neighbourhood is home to the Boca Juniors football club and a stadium. It also houses the Caminito street with its vibrant, colourful homes. It is the birthplace of Tango, the sensual dance, that has been included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Over here, we saw street artists’ paintings and artwork on display. You could even pay 100 pesos and get a picture of yourself with a local tango artist clicked in the tango regalia against the colourful backdrop of the buildings.
Another art form of Argentina that is also on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list is ‘Filete porteno’. It is a painting technique used for an ornamental design that combines vibrant colours with specific lettering styles. This painting style reminded me of the flashy and colourful paintings that one can see on the rear of Indian trucks, with lotuses, peacocks and fair maidens and the words ‘Horn. O.K. Please’.
The following day we set off on a half-day tour of the Tigre and Parana River Delta. We were picked from our hotel, by our guide, in a minibus that drove us to the BA outskirts. On reaching the suburb of San Isidro, we had an hour to explore and shop around the Sunday Flea Market selling artwork, home décor items and bohemian style clothes and jewellery.
Our guide explained how families drive down to the Tigre on weekends to relax, visit the amusement park and shop at affordable prices compared to the central BA city. She was spot on about the flea market. We couldn’t stop awing and wanting to have almost everything that was on display. We then took an exhilarating 40-minute boat ride as we cruised by stilted homes of locals and markets along the river banks.
After the tour, we dropped off at the heart of the city – Plaza de Mayo (May Square) which is surrounded by iconic monuments and buildings. The Cabildo which is now a museum, the Casa Rosada or the Pink House (seat of the President of Argentina), the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Buenos Aires City Hall and the Bank of the Argentine Nation’s headquarters. The May square was barricaded as it is where most of the protests and rallies take place in the city which has seen many political turmoils.
We then headed to San Telmo, the oldest district which has cobbled streets lined with cafes, antique shops and colonial buildings. Being a Sunday, the flea market was on in full swing with local artists selling their wares. Numerous street artists and dancers were performing as bystanders watched with rapt attention.
On the final day, we visited the Recoleta Cemetery, which both the BBC and CNN have described as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world! The cemetery is next to the ‘Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar’ and is where the country’s whose who like Presidents, Nobel Prize winners and Eva Peron are laid to rest. The cemetery is unlike what one sees most often- flat with a tombstone. Here there were countless mausoleums or ground-floor structures with stain glass windows, carved marble and granite facades some housing entire families and even their pets! Everyone seemed eager to find the sarcophagus of Evita! So, rather than waste time, you should check the map at the entrance before setting off to explore the cemetery.
If you’re looking for a relaxed holiday with a vibrant art scene, coupled with pulsating nightlife, tango, good food and wine and love football then Buenos Aires is your go-to place.
Nearest Airports: Ministro Pistarini International Airport, known as Ezeiza International Airport is the nearest airport. There are no direct flights to B.A. so take a connection via UAE, Europe or U.S.
Where to stay: You could explore options on the net depending on your comfort and budget.
Travel Tip: Be cautious of your wallets and belongings as it is not uncommon to be mugged. It helps to make online bookings. We used the Viator App. A half-day Tigre Parana River Delta trip cost us U.S. $ 50 per person.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, May 2018.