Passage Note #68 Part I: Argentina - Buenos Aires and Uruguay
Our Argentinian Itinerary
We were in Argentina for 5 weeks, experiencing the diversity of this vast country in a counterclockwise direction. Beginning and ending in the extraordinary city of Buenos Aires (A: BsAs for short), we went north to the tropical climate (D: Iguazu Falls) at the Paraguay/Brazil border, west to dry valleys and puna (E: Salta region) similar to the southwestern US, south to subpolar western Patagonia (F: Perito Moreno Glacier), then to the Lake district near the largest ski center in Latin America (G: Bariloche) and finally to the northeastern Patagonia destination of Peninsula Valdes (H and I). We also spent a couple of days in Uruguay exploring Colonia and Montevideo (B and C).
Departing from our usual travel modus operandi, our time constraints dictated that we fly to our destinations - besides, most of the LONG bus trips were beyond our 14 hour stamina limit. We took at least 8 flights on Aerolineas Argentina, the notoriously unreliable national airline, and had only one problem of lost luggage that was recovered early the next day - luckily we were able to carry on without skipping a beat.
If you’ve traveled to The Continent before, Buenos Aires seems at once familiar and like no where else you’ve ever been - because landing in Buenos Aires is almost like being in Europe somewhere although you can’t put your finger on just where. It is known as the "Paris of South America" for good reason.
The feel of the cityscape is a strange transplanted mix of France, Italy, Germany and Spain with a South American flair all its own. The lively and cosmopolitan capital of Argentina has architecture, plazas, parks, boulevards, monuments, public sculptures, theaters, and museums that harken back to a European quality and urbanity...often in conscious imitation. The marvelous Teatro Colon, the Casa Rosada, the mansions of the Artes, the giant Flower Sculpture that furls and unfurls its petals, the sandcastle that is the Recoleta Cemetery...landmarks too numerous to mention.
Case in point: consider the Barolo Palace. This was the most impressive and tallest building in South America during the golden age at the turn of the 20th century when BsAs flaunted its unsurpassed affluence (in 1908 Argentina was the 7th wealthiest nation in the world - ranking right up there with the US, UK, Switzerland, and Australia). Built for an Italian magnate, the design is based on Dante’s Divine Comedy and no expense was spared. The richly ornamented French Renaissance style edifice has a French roof, Belgian bricks, and English terracotta tiles. Corresponding to the structure of the epic poem, the building has 3 sections divided into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; its 100 meters of height refers to the cantos, 22 stories to the stanzas. Each floor is split into 22 offices. And as in the Divine Comedy, the number nine is repeated throughout the building’s plan.
Buenos Aires is also a huge city of spectacular neighborhoods.
You understand more when you realize that, because of its liberal encouragement from 1850 to 1955, Argentina had the second largest immigration wave in the world, (6.6 million - second only to the U.S) made up of mostly Italian and Spanish immigrants. It is a melting pot of multicultural diversity, a "crisol de razas". Even today, the country has the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Latin America (the latter being the 7th largest in the world). Immigrant Festivals are celebrated all over the country. And yet there’s the strong homegrown influence of the gauchos - the Argentinian cowboys - with their self-reliant country lifestyle and life on estancias (large ranches).
Tango - perhaps Argentina’s most well-known cultural export - was born in the early immigrant low class neighborhoods as was the accompanying lunfardo slang. The outdoor weekend market in San Telmo neighborhood is the place to go for street performances of this sexy dance. Tango shows abound and attending one is a compulsory part of any visit. We opted for a more authentic tango show here one night instead of the more glitzy (and expensive) floor shows. But here’s the thing: tango is a Buenos Aires phenomena not found elsewhere in the country. And none of the young porteños (people from BsAs) we met danced tango - they just laughed when we asked them. Still the spirit of tango and pioneer Carlos Gardel lives on and pervades the entire aura of this great city.
Some of our highlights, memories and observations in brief:
• Football and polo enter strongly into the Argentinian psyche and the mania is especially palpable at the La Boca Juniors stadium.
• “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”. There we said it. Had to be done. The ghostly presence of iconic Evita - beloved Eva Peron - is everywhere.
• Everywhere you see people carrying a thermos and cup like Linus carrying around his blanket in the Peanuts comic strip. This is for their mate - the drink of choice -the national infusion. Mate tastes a bit like grass and requires a prescribed methodology to drink it properly.
• One night we went to Fuerza Bruta, an interactive cirque-du-soleil type of extravaganza. While four women sliding through water on a large plastic sheet was being lowered onto our heads, an actor pulled Linda into a circle of frenzied dancers and broke a styrofoam board containing confetti over her head. She pulled glitzy bits of paper from her hair and clothing for days.
• We never did get used to the porteño pronunciation of the “ll” - a “zsa” sound, rather than a "y" sound. Spanish became even more foreign to our ears.
• BsAs is full of jacaranda trees (we always look for our boat’s namesake tree) - hundreds of them. Unfortunately we were a month too early to see the city punctuated by their colorful blooms. From what we’ve read, springtime in Buenos Aires is defined by the purple explosion; the capital bursts with color as the jacarandas open their purple blossoms and grace the city with their beauty.
• Regarding the porteño mindset, we were told (by another porteño living outside of BsAs) that they harbor a haughty sense of pride - too much pride for their own good. That’s the face they put on for the outside world; but inside their own country, they are known as difficult tourists, always complaining and hard to satisfy. Case in point: Avenida 9 de Julio is proudly claimed to be the widest avenue in the world. When the city of Brasilia (Brazil) was developed with a wider one, porteños simply dismissed it as a highway, not an avenue, thus retaining their bragging rights. In a related observation: “from Avenida 9 de Julio the city’s most emblematic symbol shoots grandly into the air: the Obelisk of Buenos Aires. The phallus-shaped monument is the perfect symbol for a country that so proudly basks in machismo.”
• Desaparecidos - Explained in a recent book: “For many years, Argentina was convulsed by the "Dirty War" (1976-1983) in which the Army and the Right-Wing Business Oligarchy, 'disappeared' 30,000 people. Most of them were 'lefties' or radicals who were tortured, had their children taken away and many were thrown out of helicopters flying over the Atlantic (murder, funeral, burial, all in one). Years later, those who survived are still looking for their stolen children. Most have been brought up by the same people who killed their parents and friends.” A group of women activists called the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo gathered in protest on the plaza in front of the Casa Rosada (President’s office) to keep a daily vigil. Only 114 children have been found. While we were there, the leader of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo whose daughter had been murdered found her own grandchild. There was much media fanfare and a big public celebration at the Boca Juniors football game that evening.
• Our last night we celebrated by going to Teatro Colon for a Chamber Orchestra concert. This is a stunning building - inside and out - that has just gone through a major renovation. It just glitters! The acoustics are said to be among the world’s top five.
• The Pope is one of them. Elected in March 2013, Pope Francis became the first non-European pope in 1272 years, the first one from the Americas and the Southern Hemisphere, and the first Jesuit. They are rightly proud and his picture adorns buses, posters, and signs throughout the city.
• Paseaperros - The Dogwalkers with their mass of furry charges are a common yet surprising spectacle anywhere near a park but especially in “well-heeled” areas of the city where having someone else walk your dog is a sign of status. The horde is always well behaved and never seem to fight; licenses limit the number of dogs to 10. This is quite a lucrative profession..or craft..or sport.
After traveling so long in Latin American countries, Buenos Aires was a wonderful respite of sophistication with comfort and amenities we had almost forgotten about. We almost fell off our (toilet) seats in the cozy little apartment we had rented for 6 nights in Barrio Norte when we learned we could flush toilet paper rather than stuff it in a basket.......nearly hitting the bidet (say what???). Yes, in fact, bidets were a standard bathroom fixture everywhere we stayed except in true hostels. And hot water 24/7 with pressure was as plentiful as it is in the U.S!
And then there’s the food. Never mind that Argentina has the highest red meat consumption in the world (prepared as an asado, Argentinian barbeque) and excellent wine that was often cheaper than water. (Well, we did get M&M’d - consuming mass quantities of meat and Malbec - we had to detoxify to a more sensible diet when we left). But within a one block radius of our apartment there were Parisian-worthy bakeries and pastry shops filled with croissants, all sorts of delicacies, and French type macaroons (alfajores); cafes and bistros; lovely supermarkets; delicatessens bursting with gourmet cheeses, pates, and salamis; shops selling Italian-worthy homemade pastas and sauces, and empanadas to die for. We were in grazing heaven and hardly ventured out to a restaurant (this due to the high cost as well).
Black Market, Blue Rate
Yes, we did find Argentina very expensive, but then our reference points have been oh-so-affordable Ecuador and Peru. So this brings up the state of the Argentine economy and the famous black money market. Always in flux and teetering on crisis with high inflation, Argentina’s economy is volatile (this time thanks to American Paul Singer, a "vulture" hedge fund manager who called his Argentinian bonds due). There are two exchange rates - the “official” rate and the blue rate. During our visit the official rate was 8 ARS to the dollar and the blue rate was 14 - giving us almost double the buying power. But it fluctuates wildly, even daily. The Argentinians recognize this too and are dollar hungry - especially for big US bills - and often require payment in US dollars. There are two places to get the blue rate - on the street and places called cuevas. The former is a dangerous proposition due to the high incidences of cheating and passing on counterfeit bills. Cuevas can be safe if you are shown where by a trusted local. These are discrete places that remind you of entering a speak-easy during Prohibition (no signage, ring the bell and be let in, take your place in line in the outer office and wait to be buzzed in to an inner office); our cueva was camouflaged by a pastoral scene of grazing cows. Although this is a low-key system that appears to be hush-hush and "secretive", everyone participates and the blue rate is brazenly displayed in the newspapers and on the nightly TV news in officially unofficial recognition.
After configuring an itinerary and consulting with a marvelous travel agent at TravelBank named Lupe, we decided our best option to travel to our desired destinations was by plane. It became clear that we didn’t bring enough US dollars with us from Ecuador to finance our trip in Argentina. We are uncomfortable carrying around that much money. But now how could we get more?
The answer was Uruguay - right across from Buenos Aires on the wide River Plata via a one hour ferry (the BuqueBus) - for the express purpose of obtaining more US dollars. Unlike Argentina, Uruguayan ATM’s offer a choice of pesos or US dollars. Turned out to be a surprisingly wonderful foray. We liked Uruguay!
Our first stop was the 17th century town of Colonia del Sacramento - a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular weekend destination for porteños. We spent the day roaming around its charming cobblestone streets paralleling the Rio Plata, peering into historic Portuguese cottages and cute cafes.
A late afternoon bus took us to the capital city of Montevideo. We really enjoyed this little sister to Buenos Aires, much smaller and more manageable in scale yet with an elegant cityscape all its own. Streets were busy but not overwhelming and there were stunning buildings, handsome city squares, and a malecon along the river. The Sunday antiques fair in a nearby park yielded wonderful treasures; the Port Market was a unique meat-fest. And the Uruguayans love their mate even more than Argentinians do! Tango was in the air here as well and we stopped to watch two dancers outside the Port Market and attended a milonga at the beautiful Solis Theater.
Back in BsAs
Back in Buenos Aires with our thick wad of US $100 bills, Chuck exchanged them at our trusty cueva and was somewhat at a loss when the woman asked him if he had a bag big enough for his blue rate pesos. You see the largest peso bill in Argentina is $100 (worth $7 at the blue rate) so he made out like a mobster with a large, unwieldy sack of loot. Travel agent Lupe was unphased, however, when we dumped the big pile of pesos on her desk and began to count out the fare for our various flights around the country.
Our first stop would be Iguazu Falls in the northeast corner of Argentina.