Don’t cry for me Argentina. The truth is I only had two days to spend in Buenos Aires, and for a city with so much to offer, that didn’t seem enough.
We had landed the evening before, on a national holiday, and had found all banks and currency exchange counters shut. So with just a few US dollars in our pocket, we set out to make the most of the holiday. No traffic on the roads was a perfect excuse for a party — a lively street fair had popped up close to our hotel at the Plaza de Mayo, the most famous square of Buneos Aires. It is here that the independence movement of Argentina began, and it also houses the Metropolitan Cathedral of Pope Francis’ former parish as well as the famous balcony of the Casa Rosada — the presidential mansion from where Evita gave her crowd inspiring speeches.
The city of Buenos Aires, with its natural harbor, has the distinction of being founded twice. The first was in 1536 by the Spaniard Pedro de Mendosa, who named it Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire (Our Lady St Mary of the Good Air), in the hope of favorable winds to guide their ships to port. This optimistic name, however, did not help it, then a mere Spanish outpost, survive poor connectivity and general neglect, and it was soon abandoned, only to be re-founded and revived 50 years later.
The people of Buenos Aires proudly refer to themselves as Porteños, “of the port”, which is the lifeline of the city. The next day, we set out to explore La Boca, one of the most famous neighborhoods of the city. La Boca, which means “the mouth” in Spanish, is the port area where the city has its roots. Today it is a working class neighborhood, which prides itself on being the cultural center of the city. While the port still operates, the area attracts hordes of tourists to its multi-colored buildings and open-air stalls.
Street Art in La Boca by famous graffiti artists
The government actively promotes La Boca as an art district — it is one of the few places in the world where street art or graffiti is actively encouraged. From time to time, the administration invites some of the most famous street artists from around the world and gives them some of the most spectacular canvases they could ask for — blank walls of entire buildings and warehouses. Walking along the narrow streets of this neighborhood is an exciting experience. Turning any random corner can bring you face-to-face with unexpected treats — giant murals by Martin Ron, Parbo, Ice, Tekaz and other names from the underground street art scene.
It is here in La Boca that the world-famous tango dance has its origins. Influenced by the European and African cultures that converged in the Buenos Aires port, this lively dance was made famous by a song, El Caminito, in the early 20th century, which refers to a narrow colorful alley of the same name.
The Hidden Church and Statue of San Marten, one of the liberators of Argentina from Spanish rule
Have a Ball at Boca Besides delighting the art lover and the bohemian, La Boca does not disappoint the sports fan either. It is home to Boca Juniors, one of the most famous football clubs in the world, with players like Diego Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Gabriel Batistuta being some of its famous alumni. The stadium is a pilgrimage center for the hardcore soccer fan, and at any time of the day tourists throng its gates. For a not so small fee, you can get a tour of the stadium and its museum, kick the ball about in the field and pose with a replica trophy!
To understand just how deeply entrenched the footballing culture is, one needs to take a walk along the public housing residential blocks of La Boca. While the identical buildings and the flats therein are almost Soviet-style in their starkness, each block has one redeeming feature — tiny football fields where children hone their talent with the ball. Called “Potreros”, meaning paddocks, these small fields are the starting point for many who have dribbled out of poverty and into footballing glory. A sign outside one of these proclaims: “There can be no Maradonas without Potreros”, and shows the passion with which the residents of the neighborhood defend the existence of these grounds in an ever-expanding city.
The Art District of La Boca
No visit to Buenos Aires is complete without a visit to a tango show, and influenced by our history lesson at La Boca, we ended the day at the famous Café Tortoni, watching a dance performance that traced the journey of tango from the seedy portside cafes of La Boca to the elegant ballrooms of today.
Skyline of Buenos Aires
The next day we saw a very different side to the city. Buenos Aires had its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s when, buoyed by a thriving economy and a strong immigrant workforce, Argentina was one of the richest countries of the world. A large number of rich and influential citizens built imposing mansions in the prevailing European styles. While descendants of some of the original families still hold on to a few of them, a large number of these mansions are now converted to hotels, embassies and other government offices. They make for a wonderful heritage walk. The French influence is particularly prominent in these buildings, and Buenos Aires is sometimes referred to as the Paris of South America.
Argentine National Congress — the Parliament
Buenos Aires also boasts the widest avenue in the world. Called July 9 Avenue, it is named in honor of the Argentine independence day in 1816. It has seven lanes on each side and is divided into many medians. Navigating through the numerous traffic signals and the heavy traffic that seems to stop for no one, it took us over 10 minutes as pedestrians to get from one side to the other! Right in the middle of this wide street is the giant Obelisk of Buenos Aires, towering above the traffic on all sides, built to celebrate 400 years of the foundation of the city.
Mouthful of Asado
A hearty lunch was needed after all the walking, and as it was the beginning of winter, we were treated to one of the national dishes, called locro — a hearty stew of corn, potatoes, pumpkins and other vegetables — vaguely reminiscent of a rich kaali dal or rajma. Some form of meat is often added, but the vegetarian one we had was just as delicious. Meat is, of course, the mainstay of Argentine cuisine, and Argentine grills called asado are a meat-eaters paradise. The world-famous Argentine beef, along with pork and lamb, is slow-cooked for hours in true barbeque fashion. For those who do not have hours to wait over a grill, the best option is to grab an empanada, a small savory pastry with a wide variety of fillings, including meat, fish, corn, spinach and cheese. Dessert was delicious gelato from one of the several traditional parlors that dot the city. The Italian influence is heavily seen in Argentine food, as a vast majority of the people trace their roots back to Italy. The hundreds of pizzerias around Buenos Aires are also testimony to that.
After lunch, our last stop was one of the most famous cemeteries in Buenos Aires — La Recoleta Cemetery, where a veritable who’s who lies buried. Mausoleums and statues of every shape and size crowd the graveyard, which is the final resting place of many of the country’s presidents, military leaders, politicians and other famous personalities. There doesn’t seem enough space for any more permanent residents, but we learn to our surprise that it is still an operational cemetery. To ensure your final resting place here, you either have to pay a king’s ransom and be extremely well-connected, or should be to the mansion born and have a centuries-old family mausoleum here.
There is one grave in La Recoleta Cemetery that has acquired cult status — that of Eva Peron, wife of three-time president Juan Peron and famous in her own right for championing the cause of women and the poor. Rising from extreme poverty to become an actor and later first lady of Argentina, she evokes strong reactions even today. Beloved as Evita among those who supported her, she is a populist icon, and her tomb at La Recoleta Cemetery stands out by the sheer number of visitors surrounding it and the numerous bouquets and wreaths laid there daily. It is said to be among the most-visited tourist spots in Buenos Aires.
Like any major city in the world, the poor and the rich co-exist side by side in Buenos Aires, often without noticing each other; but sometimes an Evita rises to force these two different worlds to acknowledge each other.