Argentina Part One: Buenos Aires

Sunday 26 January – Thursday 30 January 2020

My usual Sunday night sees me in my bed or on my sofa, wearing pyjamas, with either a ridiculously oversized bowl of pasta covered in an entire brick of cheese or some kind of takeaway. The last Sunday in January, however, I forwent my usual routine. This Sunday night saw me in Heathrow airport, dragging a 16kg suitcase behind me. I was embarking on a six week trip to South America.

Getting extended leave when you enter the world of full time employment is not the norm but I had recently qualified in my job and, as such, I was allowed to take to up to 6 weeks off as qualification leave. The majority was unpaid but I’d been saving since I started my training two and a half years ago.  I was travelling with a friend who had also just qualified at the same company and so was able to take the same leave. We were flying direct to Buenos Aires, where we’d stay for a few days before embarking on our trip round Argentina, down into Patagonia before crossing into Chile and then flying over to Brazil.

We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. My Friend’s suitcase turned out to be over the 23kg limit (only just, it was 24kg) and she could not understand how it had happened. She unzipped her bag and a cascade of pharmacy and toiletry products rolled around inside. If it had been socially acceptable to roll around the floor laughing in Heathrow Terminal 5, I would have done so. After a bit of shifting around stuff into a plastic Sainsbury’s bag that would accompany us as hand luggage for the next six weeks, she managed to get her bag under the weight limit.

Bags dumped, with no extra luggage fees incurred, we went through security and plonked ourselves in Wagamama for dinner. We then found ourselves a Fortnum & Mason so that we could treat ourselves to a couple of pre-flight glasses of champagne to celebrate our upcoming adventures.

Our flight was about 13-14 hours. Usually on long haul flights, I don’t sleep. I get far too excited about the movies and the food (yes the food) but this time, I slept. I managed a couple of movies but couldn’t keep my eyes open for much more than that. We landed at around 9am local time. This was my first time heading somewhere hotter for the winter and boy had we left the English winter behind. Even at 9am it was hot and it was sunny.

We managed to call a taxi and we made our way out into the parking lot to find the pick up point. We were taken into the city and after about 40 minutes we reached our destination: the Milhouse Hostel Hipo. We’d picked Milhouse because we’d heard it was THE party hostel in Buenos Aires and we wanted to party in Buenos Aires.

It turned out, however, that we would not. But that wasn’t the hostel’s fault, that was definitely ours. Each night, the hostel hosted drinks, either at the branch we were staying at or the Milhouse Hostel Avenue branch, which was about a 10 minute walk away, and then afterwards they’d organise a club destination. Before the drinks started, there would be some kind of evening activity – like a salsa class or a trip to a show – and they’d also do group tours (walking and cycling) during the day.

We decided to forgo the day tours as, having looked at the schedule against the weather forecast for the week, we saw that the tour to the colourful area of La Boca was on a potentially rainy day and we wanted to make sure there was sun on our visit. We did, however, book tickets to go to the La Bomba De Tiempo drum show that night and a salsa class and show at Tango Porteno for later in the week.

We’d arrived too early to checkin to our hostel but we were able to freshen up. We dragged our stuff up to the first floor (the lifts were busy), into a nice, sunny courtyard where we could sort out our stuff, slip into something more comfortable (we weren’t dressed for the Argentinian heat) and use the nearby communal bathrooms. Once we were sorted, we dumped our bags in the hostel’s storage room and hit the streets. We weren’t up for doing too much on our first day but we wanted to explore so we stuck to the area that was within walking distance of our hostel.

First we walked down to the Plaza de Mayo and saw the Casa Rosada palace. We wandered further, crossed the Rio Darsena Sur, and settled at a cafe with pink umbrellas on the waterfront called La Panera Rosa. I’d expected our lack of Spanish to be a problem in Argentina but here we found a very friendly – and chatty – waiter with good English and that turned out to be representative of what we’d find on the rest of our travels round the country.

For my first meal in Argentina, there was only one thing I really wanted. I wanted steak. I thought perhaps this wasn’t the best place for my first Argentinian steak in Argentina but it’s not like there was a limit on the number of steaks I could have while I was there.

In the end, I ordered a steak sandwich. I figured that way I’d get a smaller serving of beef but I’d still get my beef. What I was brought was pretty much an entire steak, sandwiched between two pieces of bread and it was delicious. In fact I remember it as one of my favourite meals in South America. My Friend ordered a chicken sandwich and she had serious food envy.

Now we were energised, we hit the road again. We left the area of Puerto Madero, where we’d ended up, and continued our wanderings. The area by the river where we’d sat wasn’t the most interesting. It felt like the docklands in London – lots of new build towers filled with, presumably, offices and flats. Instead we moved onto the area of San Telmo – the oldest neighbourhood in Buenos Aires.

San Telmo was a lot more rustic. The streets were cobbled and there was street art decorating the colonial architecture. Here we came across the Mercado de San Telmo market. The market reminded me of Borough Market in London, except here there were also antique stores interspersed amongst the food stalls and fruit and veg stands. It was quiet and we didn’t stop to eat but it was pretty.

We ventured back out into the bright streets and came across an ice cream parlour called Freddo. This was something we needed to stop for. We continued our wanderings until we were back at the Plaza de Mayo. We realised one of the buildings lining the square was a cathedral – the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires, home to the mausoleum of General San Martín – and so we went in to look around before heading back to our hostel.

Now we were able to check in. We had a couple of bunks in a 8-bed female dorm which we were happy to find came with two en suite bathrooms. The room was pretty big, had lockers for each of us to store our bags in and was pretty clean. Not a bad start to our hostelling.

We later made our way down to reception and were told we needed to head over to the Avenue branch where we would be taken to the La Bomba De Tiempo drum show. We headed over there, where we linked up with the rest of our group and a guide herded us along the streets and onto the subway to take us to the venue. We arrived to find quite the queue around the block. I’m not sure we actually found the end of it but we at least found a spot where we could slip in. As a Brit, obviously that makes me uncomfortable.

Inside, it was mostly open air. There was a bar area undercover where the queues were intense once again. I ordered a very large beer so that I wouldn’t need to go back quite so often (and indeed I managed to eek it out so that it would tide me over for the rest of the evening).

The drum show was fun. I would have expected myself to need more alcohol in order to enjoy it but it had a good atmosphere, it was warm and we ended up joining a group from our hostel so we had people to bob along with. It was the perfect activity for our first night. We had said we wouldn’t make it a big one as we needed some proper rest but, at the end of the show, the group we were with decided to find an afterparty and I’ll admit I was tempted to join. My Friend, however, was less keen so we went with the group who were heading back to the hostel instead.

We arrived at Milhouse to find drinks were still going on at the bar. It wasn’t particularly busy but, as we’d learn, nights out start later in Argentina. We stayed for a couple and eventually the after party lot returned. At about 1am/2am, we decided it was time for bed. It turned out this was when the club portion of the night was due to start but for us it was bedtime.

The next morning, we hit the streets again for more exploring. We quickly realised that seemed to be the main thing to do in Buenos Aires. There weren’t loads of obvious activities to do, instead there were a lot of different neighbourhoods so the best thing to do seemed to be to walk around them.

We ended up walking in the direction of San Telmo again and found ourselves back at the Mercado de San Telmo. We had just had breakfast back at the hostel but I wasn’t particularly full and I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to get food at this place again. An empanada stall called El Hornero was open and seemed popular and this was perfect for me. I didn’t need anything big. I planned to just order one but there was a minimum to pay on card so – what a shame – I had to order two. I went for a standard meat one and a ham and cheese. The latter didn’t sound like a particularly cultural option but I wanted cheese. Both were delicious and I regretted neither.

Now we continued on to our ultimate destination: the area of La Boca. Chances are if you’ve seen pictures of Buenos Aires, you’ve seen the pictures of bright, multi-coloured buildings. That’s La Boca. We’d seen the pictures, now we wanted to see it in real life. Our map showed it would be about a half hour walk which in my normal life would be excessive but since walking around Buenos Aires was going to be our main activity during our stay that seemed fine.

I’m not sure whether we took the best route. We were led down a busy main road, through some sport grounds and into a quiet residential area but we certainly were getting a tour of the city. As we reached the area that our map said was La Boca, we realised we didn’t really know what we were looking for. We knew there were some colourful buildings in the area but we didn’t know which part of the area or what this part was called. We’d assumed it would be obvious. It was not. At least, it wasn’t obvious in the area we’d ended up in.

We kept walking until we saw some crowds of people and we moved towards them. This turned out to be a solid approach because, of course, those people were tourists and those tourists were also here to see the real life versions of the things they’d seen on Instagram.

We found a short street lined with the colourful houses we’d come for, cafes and souvenir shops. There were plenty of opportunities here to indulge in one of my favourite hobbies – watching other people’s Instagram photoshoots – and to engage in some shoots ourselves. We stopped for a cold drink at one of the cafes and wandered in and out of the shops in search of whatever the main thing to do here was.

The street seemed to be too small to be “it” and the girl on the desk in our hostel had mentioned there being some kind of entrance fee involved in the hostel’s walking tour to the area. We didn’t get far in figuring out what this was – there didn’t seem to be anywhere to go into – and so, as the place was so full of tourists, we decided to move on and keep walking round La Boca until we found more.

We looked for places on Google Maps that looked like they could be tourist spots and eventually ended up at La Bombonera. This did not turn out to be more colourful houses but instead a football stadium, popular with tourists who came to visit it. We later discovered that the fee the girl in our hostel had referred to was to access and tour the stadium. The crowded street we’d found earlier was indeed “it” insofar as La Boca’s colourful tourist offerings went.

Once we’d realised this, we decided to call a taxi to take us to another part of town (not being into football or indeed any sports ourselves). We headed over to the area of Recoleta to visit the famous cemetery there (aka Recoleta Cemetery). You might find the idea of a cemetery as a tourist attraction weird but having now visited Highgate Cemetery (London) and Bellu Cemetery (Bucharest), I’m starting to get used to the idea.

As we walked up to the entrance of the cemetery (our taxi had dropped us off round the corner), we passed a McDonald’s. I knew it was wrong but we stopped off. It was a boiling day and I wanted a milkshake. I was heartbroken to discover that McDonald’s milkshakes were not a thing in Argentina and I had to settle for a plain old soft drink, but at least it was a cool place to stop for a refresher.

Back out in the heat, we walked into Recoleta Cemetery to find a sea of mausoleums (more than 6,400 tombs are spread across 14 acres) in varying styles – from gothic to classical – including some for famous Argentinian figures. You could spend hours lost in the alleyways and, particularly in the sun, it didn’t feel creepy at all. Since we only had a limited amount of time, we didn’t stay for too long. We wandered amongst the lines of tombs in random directions for a while before going back to McDonald’s for a chicken nugget-based snack.

As Recoleta was another area we wanted to explore, we decided to stick around. I’d found a recommendation for a bookshop called Libreria El Ateneo Grand Splendid that I wanted to see. I wasn’t in the market for more books but the bookshop had started life as a theatre. I’d seen pictures and it looked beautiful. We walked around 20 minutes from the cemetery, along some big shopping streets, before we ended up at the bookshop.

It was a very impressive building, filled with a wide range of books. Unfortunately (but obviously, given we were in Argentina), the vast majority were in Spanish which would have been a struggle for non-Spanish speakers like me. We did find a small English language book section, however, the majority of these were erotica, which spoke volumes about what people think English speakers like to read.

We stayed for a short while, wandering up the levels to take pictures, none of which did the place justice, before we left and walked another 30-40 minutes back to our hostel, admiring the city’s architecture as we went (including the Supreme Court of Argentina).

Back at the hostel, we asked a girl at reception for recommendations for dinner. To our surprise, she recommended a pizza place. Pizza wasn’t what we thought we’d be eating in South America but she said we needed to try it Argentinian style. We arrived at the place, Las Cuartetas, and, I can’t lie, the outside did not tempt us to go in. It was quite a big place but looked like somewhere you’d pick up something greasy after a night out. I love those spots but it wasn’t quite what we had in mind for dinner.

We decided to roll with it and I was glad we did. We ordered a pizza to share (they weren’t small) but split the toppings. My Friend went for salami and onion, I went for ham and mushroom. It turned out Argentinian pizza is more like American pizza than Italian. It had a thick base and a lot of cheese. That might not be to everyone’s taste but I am a lover of all pizza types.

That evening, we headed over to Milhouse Avenue for drinks. We spent a while playing drinking games before leaving for some food. We found a McDonald’s on the map and walked in its direction hoping it would still be open. In hindsight, wandering around somewhat aimlessly along the streets of Buenos Aires in the early hours was probably not a sensible idea. Thankfully we were fine but sadly McDonald’s was not open.

We walked back to our hostel to find that a restaurant round the corner was still open and serving food (either Bar Yrigoyen II or Bernardo – there were two places open and I’m not sure whose outdoor tables we sat down at). We both ordered plates of fried cheese and chips (it was 2am – it’s what we both wanted). On the menu these looked like starters but our portions were huge. We could/should have shared one as neither of us could finish ours meals.

The next day was our last full day in Buenos Aires. We had two things on the agenda: (1) have a properly good steak, and (2) visit the neighbourhood of Palermo Soho. The area had been recommended by one of my friends who had also suggested a steak restaurant she had been to there: two birds, one stone.

While we were in our hostel, a guy we’d befriended said he’d join us so the three of us hopped in a taxi over to the steak place: La Cabrera. According to our friend, the place was popular and when I googled I found it on a list of some of the best steak places in the world. Happily, however, we managed to get a seat straight away. I guess it was early for lunch and it was a weekday.

As we perused the menu, I felt a twinge of guilt. The prices weren’t ridiculous but they were London prices. That was fine for me and My Friend who were used to them and hadn’t yet acclimatised to cheaper South American prices but I was pretty sure the guy from our hostel wasn’t quite expecting that. My Friend and I ordered a couple of steaks – not the cheapest ones on the menu but definitely not the most expensive either. Our hostel friend found the cheapest cut on the menu and asked the waiter what part of the cow it was from. The waiter gestured to his side – that sounded okay.

While we waited, we were brought various nibbles and dips. They were tasty. This place did seem nice. When our food came, My Friend and I were presented with two pieces of meat which were still sizzling. Our hostel friend, however, was not. He was given a pile of… something. I felt bad. I was pretty sure I knew what he had (I’ve seen people make the same mistake before (but not in Spanish so I didn’t realise before)) but didn’t want to say. I thought perhaps if he didn’t know what it was he might be more inclined to eat it and like it. He did indeed try it but he didn’t like it. It was intestines.

Luckily for him, Argentinian steaks basically consist of a proper, thick slab of beef. Neither My Friend nor I needed the entire thing. If anything, he probably did better out of this as we each gave him about half of ours so he ended up being the only one to eat an entire steak. And it was a good steak.

Fed, we started to wander around Palermo. I liked the area a lot, it had real Californian vibes, with lots of boutiques lining the leafy streets. It was just a shame the weather today was grey and drizzly. We headed in the direction of the Eco Park, which we’d been told had animals wandering freely around it. This used to be the site of the Buenos Aires Zoo but this had been closed a few years before and the majority of animals released into nature reserves.

We spent a while in the park, spotting wildlife such as peacocks and maras roaming free. There were also several enclosures housing other more exotic animals but apparently these were not in permanent captivity but were animals in need of medical care.

Out of the park, we continued wandering around Palermo. We found an area filled with bars and sat for a while with a (non-alcoholic) beverage before making our way back to our hostel.

That evening, My Friend and I had our tango class at Tango Porteno. It was a short walk from our hostel and I arrived feeling a little nervous. I realised the lesson would likely be in Spanish, as if me dancing wasn’t going to be challenge enough. We were taken to a ballroom with tables either side and a dance floor in the middle. There were various other groups of people, some who seemed to be on tours.

The lesson was indeed in Spanish but we were able to flag that we were English speakers and our two instructors were able to throw us some instructions in English. Otherwise, it was pretty much just watching what they did and copying. We all had to divide into pairs (I was very glad My Friend and I were already in a group of two). Since I was the taller of us, I took the male role since the man has to lead in the tango and I thought My Friend might struggle to push me around.

We spent a while “dancing” around, learning a couple of simple routines. It was fun but it did feel a bit like an activity organised on a cruise ship. We were each awarded with a certificate at the end so, I am pleased to announce that I am now a qualified tango dancer, complete with a tango diploma.

After our lesson, we were led to the main stage where we had a three course dinner (actually not bad but not the best steak I’d have in South America) and watched a tango show, which was amazing. As we watched our instructors move around the stage, I was indignant to see that they had not taught us their best stuff (considering how uncoordinated I proved to be, I could maybe see why).

This was our last big Buenos Aires activity. The next day, we tried to seek out an ice cream parlour nearby a friend had recommended but sadly we arrived and it was closed. The weather was hot again and the area we were in felt a bit rougher so we headed off. We had intended to find a local cafe to sit in but didn’t find anywhere that looked particularly appealing and now I was starting to feel ill. We ended up taking refuge in a Starbucks. It was not the most cultural option but it was air conditioned.

It was then time to head back to the hostel, grab our bags and head to the airport. Our next stop was Puerto Iguazú to see the waterfalls. We’d booked a flight a few weeks before for about £40 which we were particularly grateful for having spoken to people in our hostel who had missed the cheap flights and were having to take the bus. The journey was 24 hours. Rather them than us.

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