Sunday, January 26, 2014

a few days in Buenos Aires

A trip to Patagonia had been on my to-do list for a very long time: pictures of Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine have amazed me for years. Jill and I, along with our friends Karla and Darrell, booked a Patagonia tour through REI Adventures. The organized tour started with a day in Buenos Aires. We decided to arrive a few days early, allowing some margin for travel delays but also to spend more time in this city that I'd heard so much about. (Click on photos for a larger version)
We arrived at our hotel in Buenos Aires (the Hotel Reconquista Luxor) after about 24 hours travel door-to-door. Arriving at 10:00am, we had no expectation that our room would be ready, and of course it wasn't. We stored our bags in the locker at the hotel; though we had the option of sightseeing for a few hours, a nap in the hotel lounge area was more appealing. After a nap and moving into our hotel room, we revived with a light lunch (a sandwich at Subway!) and started on a walking tour from the hotel.
The hotel was in the center of the city, just two blocks from the Obelisco (like the Washington Monument) at Plaza de la Republica. Here's the view from the rooftop patio at the hotel...
The obelisk was a handy landmark for finding our way back to the hotel: head for Avenida 9 de Julio (the "widest street in the world", 16 lanes wide), go to the obelisk, and we're almost home. Speaking of Av 9 de Julio, check out this video of street entertainers at a traffic light; quite a welcome improvement over squeegee guys and flower vendors, we saw jugglers and other similar entertainers at several places in Buenos Aires and later in Santiago.
We arrived on a Friday morning, and the streets in the area were bustling. After hours, and on the weekend, the area was much quieter. We enjoyed walking around the "microcentro" and Puerto Madero neighborhoods. The Italian influence in Buenos Aires is very strong, most noticeably in the number of good Italian restaurants; Argentine grills (meat and seafood) seemed to be the most popular (no big surprise) but Italian trattorias came in a close second, at least in the areas we saw.
On Saturday we did the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus tour of the city so that we could see more areas that weren't quite within walking distance, and also get some narration about what we were seeing. The bus tour was great, although it would have been better if all of the headphone jacks had worked (!) so we could both hear the English-language version. 
Our tour was marred by our experience in one neighborhood where we got off the bus to walk around a bit. Walking through one small park, both Jill and I were splattered with some foul-smelling bird poop. Maybe it was the real thing: hey, the guy sitting on the bench pointed up into the trees. But more likely, it was something he squirted from his backpack when we were turned away from him, and he was all too insistent to help us clean up afterward. The "pigeon poop" ploy is a common pickpocket trick, and I recognized it immediately; we emphatically declined his assistance. I kept looking for an accomplice, but apparently he was working solo. We left the park rapidly, with all our belongings intact. Unfortunately, the stench from the "pigeon poop" was so strong I couldn't stand it; we headed back to the hotel, took showers and washed out our clothes. Thus refreshed, we resumed our bus tour (tickets were good all day long) and noticed that our helpful "friend" was still on the same bench in the same park, several hours later. Just saying...
Our friends Karla and Darrell arrived on Sunday, two days after we did. In spite of their bleariness from the same red-eye flight schedule we'd had, the four of us enjoyed walking all over the centro, Puerto Madero, Retiro, and Palermo neighborhoods. The parks were full of Buenos Aires residents enjoying the gorgeous summer Sunday afternoon. Darrell and I took a short ride on the subway system (I think a subway ride is an essential part of getting to know any large city), and walked around the National Congress building.

We closed out the day with a nice dinner in the Puerto Madero area; the old warehouses along the original wharves have been reclaimed to house numerous good restaurants, making for a busy area in the long summer evenings. After dinner, we headed for the Obelisco and then our hotel... 
On Monday morning, we met the rest of our tour group to begin the "official" part of our tour. Fifteen of us total, all from the US (no surprise for an REI tour) and all were veteran travelers. We had a dedicated van and tour guide for the day, and saw some of the same areas that we'd seen the last couple of days, but this time in more detail and with better explanations.
The Caminito neighborhood is a popular tourist destination. Down by the docks, it is a relatively poor area with small houses constructed from whatever could be scrounged from the docks, and painted with odds and ends of whatever paint could be found.

The current Pope of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is Argentine and was previously the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. No surprise, he seemed to be very popular, pictures of him appeared all over the city. Most were more dignified than this one.
The Cementerio de la Recoleta is another high-priority checkbox on the Buenos Aires tourist route. According to CNN, it is one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, and the final resting place of many famous Argentines including Evita Peron. I don't know about the "most beautiful" part, but it is an interesting rabbit warren of mausoleums, some of them quite ornate and others more quietly dignified.
However, I was a little bit surprised to see a warning sign in the cemetery about how to prevent the spread of dengue fever! I wouldn't think that the residents would care...
I knew beforehand that Buenos Aires was a modern city, considered to be the "most European" of the cities in South America. But I wasn't expecting just how European it was, and in particular how much Italian influence was there. I enjoyed Buenos Aires a great deal. 
Our organized tour of Buenos Aires concluded that evening with a dinner and tango show. The tango originated in the lower-class parts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and is an important part of the area's cultural heritage. There are several nightclubs that present formal tango shows for the tourist trade, and many more other opportunities to see (and dance!) tango in a more native setting. I am not a dance aficionado, but I will say that the dancers were very talented. However, we didn't stay for the entire performance; we had an early departure for the airport in the morning.
The next morning we flew to El Calafate, getting into position for several days of hiking in Argentine Patagonia.