Buenos Aires – Eat, drink and Tango!

During my 6 month trip around South America I stayed in many wonderful and exciting places, but Buenos Aires by far was one of my favourites. It truly is a magical city and you have to experience it for yourself.

Travelling to Buenos Aires

I travelled to Buenos Aires by bus from Puerto Iguazu, taking 17 hours. I was looking forward to my first Argentinian bus experience, because I’d heard so many good things about them, but it turned out to be disappointing. My seat was broken, so every time I lowered the seat down flat to sleep, it slowly rose back up into a sitting position. I would fall asleep laying down and then wake up 30 minutes later sitting upright!

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My self-elevating bus seat

I had also heard good things about the food on the Argentinian buses, so for that one trip I took very limited provisions – I would usually pack some snacks and water to get through the long hours. I started to get worried when they still hadn’t served anything at 10pm – I was worryingly trying to work out how I could ration my 4 remaining pieces of a mini Toblerone to last 17 hours! At 10:30 they finally served food…and it was worse than aeroplane food; some kind of indescribable meatloaf and rice…ugh. If you’re travelling in Argentina by bus, make sure to pack provisions!

Beautiful BA

Buenos Aires (or BA, as travellers call it) has such a lovely atmosphere for a city; it’s infectious and you can feel it the moment you arrive. It’s an extremely easy place to navigate; a huge 20 lane highway runs right up through the middle to a huge obelisk and dotted around are beautiful palaces and stately buildings. A pretty decent subway/underground system runs to most areas of the city and cabs are decently cheap. The best form of transport is by far the city buses, from which you can see BA in all of its eclectic wonder!

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The obelisk

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A government building

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Casa Rosa – the pink palace

The architecture is very European influenced, with tall grand buildings with ornate sculpturing and iron balconies. But everything has a slightly rougher edge to it, with unkempt shutters and walls adorned with political graffiti. At the Eastern edge of the city is a brand new district called Puerto Madero, which sports huge glass skyscrapers and a modern marina, with restaurants and up-market shops. Beyond this, out into the water of the Rio de la Plata river is an ecological reserve and across the river, Uruguay! You literally have everything you could think of, all in one amazing city!

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BA street

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Graffiti of Che Guevara

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Ecological reserve

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San Telmo street

San Telmo

I stayed in a hostel called PAX in San Telmo, which is the bohemian district – you can wander through street after street of markets and strange little indoor bazaars. They sell everything from old doors and benches, to huge swords and old foreign currency (I found an old 50 pence coin from England whilst digging around).

I wandered these markets with an Australian guy called Daniel who I first met several weeks before in Brazil and who happened to be staying in the same hostel as me; such is the coincidental life of a traveller. We were both pretty disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to buy a sword as a souvenir!  Following the markets, we strolled down to the marina and looked around an old Argentinian Naval boat from the 1800s – it is easy to while away hours just walking around the city – you never know what you’re going to find!

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The marina

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Aboard the naval boat

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Blue skies and the mast

In the evenings in San Telmo there is a lot of activity and live music on the streets – I walked through the district one evening and saw an 8-piece salsa band, a Brazilian drumming band, and a spontaneous tango dancing session. The tango was breathtaking to watch; someone had simply lain down some cardboard as a dance floor and strung a set of fairy lights from a lamp-post in a small plaza. The music came out of a little boom box and soon various couples stopped to show off their tango skills. They would hold each other close, cheek to cheek, but their bodies would move so smoothly across the floor, and the women did lovely ‘flicky’ motions with their lower legs – it was so romantic!

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Tango in San Telmo

Cycling the city

I spent the most part of one day in BA out cycling with a couple of other guys from my hostel, Simon and Gustav. We hired bikes from our hostel for less than £5 for the day and decided to take a look at the ecological reserve. We cycled out in the reserve, to the beaches of the river, stopping for a snack from a food van and passing the huge glass towers and the marina in our loop. I clearly had no luck with seats because my bike seat kept tipping backwards until I was cycling with my knees around my ears, clown-style! We negotiated a crossing of the 20 lane highway in the centre of the city by closing our eyes and wishing for luck!

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Cycling in the reserve

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City beaches

Recoletta cemetery

Another day I decided to take a bus down to a district called Recoletta. I wasn’t too sure about the route I had been given so I asked the bus driver in my limited Spanish if he stopped at Recoletta. He said he did and I was happy with my first real communication in Spanish being such a success. This soon turned to embarrassment when the driver pulled the bus over in the middle of a street (holding up traffic!), called me to the front of the bus and pointed enthusiastically at the street ahead of us. It was very sweet of him to give me such special treatment but I’m not sure the crowded bus of busy Argentinians appreciated it as much!

The main draw for Recoletta is a huge cemetery full of mausoleums for many of Argentina’s most prominent citizens, including presidents, politicians, and (most notably) Maria Eva Duarte Peron – otherwise known as Evita. As I neared the entrance, I was approached by a man collecting money for children with Aids; I felt I should contribute and so gave him some of my spare American currency. However, he then proceeded to grip my hand, kiss my cheeks SIX times, touch the side of my face, and tell me I was beautiful…only in Argentina can you get propositioned outside a cemetery for handing over less than $10! However, you notice how tactile the people are in Argentina – even the men kiss several times when they greet each other.

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cemetery lanes

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Memorial statue

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Mausoleum

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Eva Peron’s resting place

The cemetery was beautiful, which sounds like a strange thing to say. The mausoleums are absolutely huge; some the size of small two-storey buildings. They even have staircases inside that go downstairs to underground crypts. They have glass doors in the fronts and the coffins are prominently displayed inside, with alters containing photographs, personal items and religious offerings. Evita’s mausoleum was surprisingly small and understated, considering her popularity in both life and death, but it is apparently the only one that is always covered in flowers.

La Boca

In the South Eastern edge of the city is a neighbourhood called La Boca, which carries with it a real Bohemian vibe with wide pedestrian streets and brightly coloured houses. The area is quite a tourist haven, with many places selling tango-related objects and there are many bars, restaurants and taverns. You’ll also find a lot of street artists selling their wares and street performers to entertain you.

I took a train down to La Boca one morning and spent the day wandering the area – at first I was a bit unsure, as people told me that the area had been considered unsafe for tourists. However I found it felt safe to walk about the area alone and the people were perfectly friendly! If you like trinkets and an arty vibe then this area is definitely for you!

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La Boca

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Street artist

Goodbye to sandals!

I stayed in BA around August time and the weather had been great; bright blue skies and clear days, with plenty of sunshine. But it was still absolutely freezing! Gone were the flip-flops and shorts that I had been living in for the previous month in Brazil – that 17 hour bus ride had definitely taken me south into the cold.

At one point I thought I had gotten used to the weight of my backpack, because it was surprisingly easy to lift…then I realised it was because I was now wearing half of my clothes in order to keep warm! I went shopping in the Centro district to get some new clothes because the people in BA dress really well and I was sick of looking like a typical messy traveller. I braved the nice shops and worried about having a pretty woman experience, with glamorous shop assistants who would be  mean about me – but the women couldn’t have been nicer! I had an amusing experience asking for skinny black jeans in Spanish and one assistant groping me to figure out my size!

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Shopping district

The BA way

My evenings were spent either socialising in the hostel or heading out to restaurants, bars and dance halls with people from my hostel. One thing that surprised me about the city was the timeline of an evening; no one eats until after 10pm at night and people sit in restaurants and cafes eating food and drinking coffee until gone midnight. They don’t tend to drink alcohol very early in the evening. Clubs and bars open at around 2am and that’s when the Argentinians start to drink – they pace themselves a lot better than people back in the UK!

People never really get home or to bed before dawn. Needless to say, I did not see my bed before 5am for several days in a row and my body clock officially broke!

Visit if you can!

Life in Buenos Aires is a crazy ride but you can’t help but be swept along with it; the place is addictive. Sadly, as is the case with travellers, my little group of friends at the hostel started to disperse, moving on to various other destinations following a week of BA life. When travelling you become attached to people so quickly, getting to know them in a blink of the eye and bonding through shared experiences. Then all too soon it is time to part – it is such a mixture of up’s and down’s. I left the city and moved West into Argentina for more rural experiences.

If you’re visiting Argentina then BA is a must-see stop – even if it’s just to watch the Tango! 

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Wine and Walking in the Andes – Mendoza, Argentina

Mecca in Mendoza

If you knew me personally, you’d know of my love of wine – even when wine isn’t particularly nice to me back, I am a loyal and faithful servant. So in 2010, whilst touring around South America for 6 months, I was eager to stop in one of the wine capitals of the world – Mendoza in Argentina.

Mendoza is nestled into a series of high plains in the crook of the eastern Andes, and something about the climate here (I was listening on the wine tour, honestly!) means they produce some of the best red Malbec wines. The region is the largest producer of wine in the whole of Latin America – basically, it was my Mecca!

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Internet pic of a Mendoza vineyard

Home away from home

As a backpacker, I was making my home in hostels – in Mendoza, home was the Hostel Lao. This hostel was recommended to me by fellow travellers and I was so glad to have taken their advice. The place is owned by an English man and his Argentinian wife, and they created one of the most homely hostels that I had stayed in throughout my trip – the hostel was peppered with comfy sofas, armchairs, and a real log fire (which was lovely in the dreary rain Mendoza was suffering from at the time). As a traveller, finding places where you feel truly comfortable is like gold, as it means you can bed down for a few days and relax.

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Living area

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Garden

The staff at the hostel were incredibly helpful, especially a guy called Herman who answered about a million of my questions during my stay. He advised on the best things to do while I was in town and of course the first suggestion was a wine tour. I booked onto a day excursion to several boutique ‘bodegas’ (wineries).

World of wine

The excursion was a unique experience – there were about 15 people on the trip; a family of four from the USA, two Mexicans, and the rest Argentinian. We toured around three bodegas and sampled several wines in each.

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Malbec wine barrels

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Enjoying the tour!

My resistance to wine can be low (despite the quantities I have consumed!) and so I was in need of some food to soak up the alcohol. I couldn’t have predicted a bigger lunch. We arrived at a local restaurant and were put on a large, long table that was laid out to every possible square inch with food; meats, cheeses, pickles, rice, lentils, vegetables, salads, breads, dips…you name it, it was there in four different varieties!

As we tucked into the food, a waiter informed us that this was only the starter! They kept bringing more dishes out as the meal went on – various types of empanadas (a traditional Argentinian pasty), a rice dish, and a pasta dish. The copious foods were watered down with much more red wine!

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Our never-ending lunch

At lunch I was seated with the Argentinians, who didn’t speak much English. Add that to my rubbish Spanish and I wasn’t holding out hope for much lunchtime talk. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Argentinians continually practised their English on me and encouraged me to use my limited Spanish by pointing at the various foods and asking for translations, then providing them back in Spanish. It made for much hilarity – they loved the word ‘chickpea’!

Taking on the trek

The second suggestion from Herman was a day trek up into the ‘Chico Andes’, which is what the locals call the smaller mountain ranges in the Andes that border Argentina and Chile. When I say smaller, I mean 3500 metres above sea level, as opposed to 6500 metres – so they’re not so ‘chico’ in reality!

Two guys from my hostel joined me on the trek – Jonathus (from Brazil) and Quentin (from France). We were taken to a rental shop to get equipment, which included these huge moon boots and some walking poles. We met our guide, Fefi, at the base camp in the morning and began hiking up the range to one of the peaks in the Cerro San Bernardo elevations.

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My attractive moon boots

It was a bright, clear day with the sun shining – but the snow that had fallen recently did make walking really difficult. You would step forward and not know if you would sink a few inches or a few feet into snow. Every step forward would also see you slide back half a step each time, which felt so defeating after a few hours.

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Lake at base camp

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Some of the shallower footsteps

I wasn’t sure how I would be affected by the altitude but I was soon to find out. As unfit as I am (a semi-regular exerciser), I could happily walk uphill in normal circumstances – but every step at altitude is like a marathon. It’s hard to describe – it’s not like you can’t suck in air, it’s just that every breath doesn’t feel like it’s enough.

About half way up I had started to feel queasy and got a little light-headed. Jonathus, Quentin and Fefi were OK and powered on ahead – in fact, due to my level of fitness and the altitude sickness, I fell behind my companions and remained that way for most of the hike. But I was keen to keep my own pace and not overdo it, having suffered with many a knee injury in the past. I spent 90% of that trek reciting ‘left…..right…..left……right’ just to keep myself going.

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Staying cheerful on the climb

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The boys rounding a ridge

All of the hard work is worth it for the scenery on the hike – it was absolutely breathtaking. There were frozen waterfalls, snow drifts, and we hiked to a level above the clouds – absolutely unbelievable. When I had finally neared the top, the boys were waiting and they cheered me on – we all hugged and took group pictures at the top. We stayed up on the peak for about an hour, taking pics, sitting and having a packed lunch – Fefi had carried up a gas stove and made us hot soup.

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Reached the top!

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Above the clouds

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Group hug!

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Loving being at the top

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Soup at the summit

The trek back down took only half the time it took to get up because we just stood into the snow and let ourselves slip down the mountain. The boys loved this part and I soon got into the rhythm, with our various falls into the snow keeping us amused all the way down to base camp. That night we celebrated our achievement with a huge steak dinner – I won’t get started on the steaks in Argentina…they need their whole own blog post!

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The survivors

 

Are you a wine fanatic? Does Mendoza tickle your taste buds? 

If you’re in the area, consider staying at Hostel Lao – http://www.laohostel.com