South America is indeed the farthest I can think of from what I call home, Singapore. When I started reading more and more about South America before my trip, I couldn’t wait to be there and experience what they call as “Latino Passion.” It’s strange but the passion really gets to you and for a person like me who is too passionate, it is like a drug over-doze.
Since our ultimate destination was Antarctica, we could only spend a few days in Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, two extremely different cities of Argentina. Argentina is a nation of immigrants. Spending few days in Buenos Aires and interacting with many locals, it came to me at no surprise that the unique amalgamation of cultures, art, background and genes from different parts of Europe and Americas made every individual so unique and charming. I could feel so much life, energy and adrenaline in this beautiful cultural capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires. If, there was ever a day, when I were to decide quitting my job and retire early, Buenos Aires would make it to the list, for all the right reasons.
We had an action packed itinerary in Buenos Aires and it had to be; because there was so much to learn, see and experience. Here is a quick snapshot:
Day 1: Recoleta Tour> City Center Tour
Day 2: Casa Rosada> Metropolitan Cathedral> Presidential Palace> Cabildo> Illuminated Block > Palacio Barolo> Palacio del Congreso>Café Tortini
Day 3: La Boca & Caminito Walking Tour> Obelisco> Teatro Colon> El Ateneo > National Museum of Fine Arts
Day 4: Recoleta Cemetery> Nuestra Senora del Pilar Church> “Hidden Graffiti And Urban Art Tour” by Biking Buenos Aires.
Day 1: Recoleta Tour>City Center Tour
I am a big fan of free walking tours and I love doing this as a first thing in any big city. It is a great way to familiarize yourself with the surroundings and embrace the history and existence of the site. The Recolata Free Walking Tour starts at 10:30 AM and takes you around the concrete landscapes of palaces and monuments of Recoleta. The area is very well laid out with manicured parks that look absolutely ornamental. The trees are brought from different parts of Argentina to Buenos Aires, giving city an entirely different look in every season. The City Center tour starts at 3 PM everyday. Plaza-De-Mayo area looks so European in every sense.
I learnt a few things from the tour:
- The city of Buenos Aires has 3 million population, and with suburbs making it to about 13 million population. The civilization in Buenos Aires is divided between north and south Buenos Aires by Rivadavia Avenue. Due to yellow fever epidemic in 1891, most rich families moved to the north and most influential people continue to stay in north even to this day.
- What really gave me goosebumps was to learn about the 5 military dictatorships in short period of 100 years. Social inequalities, terrorism, dictatorship was the norm for many years until not long ago. People who questioned the dictator, disappeared and then tortured and murdered. Many graffiti across the city symbolizes the valor and celebrates the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which is an association of Argentine mothers whose children “disappeared” during the state terrorism of the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983. Event today, these women march occasionally on the streets of Buenos Aires wearing white head scarves, symbolizing the diapers of their lost children in the anticipation that they might still find their children. Listening about these stories sensitized me about what the locals have gone through and how strong and brave they have become over time.
Day 2: Casa Rosada>Metropolitan Cathedral>Cabildo> Illuminated Block>Palacio Barolo>Café Tortini>Palacio del Congreso
We started our day early and reached Plaza de Mayo. This is the city square and main foundational site of Buenos Aires. You cannot miss, Casa Rosada (Pink House), Office of President of Argentina. We avoided the museum since the text is in Spanish only. However, if the President is not in the office, you can get a free guided tour which needs to be booked in advance. Now, how do you know if the president is in the house or not? It is not a trick question. If the President is in the house, then Casa Rosada will be hoisting 2 flags as in the picture below. Quite intuitive, isn’t it. 🙂 Within the city square, you can walk around to see the Metropolitan Cathedral and Cabildo. It’s easy to get lost in these mesmerizing architectures of the square. I could easily spend a few more hours but we were pressed on time.
We then walked to Palacio Barolo. Built in Gothic architecture in 1923, this building is a must see. It is themed around Divine comedy where-in the 1st level represents hell and highest level represents way to heaven. There is no lift from middle floor to the top floor as people are expected to earn the right to go to the heaven. So you got to take the stairs. The top most floor showcases the devine light and is switched on, every evening. What is amazing about this light is that it has a Batman sticker so you can imagine Batman patrolling the city of Buenos Aires every evening!! Now that is COOL! The different tours available include the night tours, day tours, sound of the architecture tours and more. You have to book in advance to be part of these tours and the schedule can be found here. This building is now transformed to become an office building with about 260 offices now and is a National Heritage.
After a history overdoze, it was time for coffee!!! Argentinians also LOOOVE coffee and there is a historic reason for it. The lifestyle of immigrants was frugal and the living conditions were tough. The immigrants stayed in matchbox houses and didn’t have a personal space. Hence these people, would go to café which are quieter than their own neighborhood. It is unbelievable to see the number of café on any street. Absolutely insane!
So we made our way to Café Tortoni, the oldest café built in 1858, and older than the avenue itself. Having coffee is a very quintessential Argentine thing to do and having one in Tortoni will transport you 150 years into history. I bet!
After some sugar and coffee, we set ourselves to see Palacio del Congreso. It took 50 years to build the National Congress. This is a beautiful architectural piece with furniture from England and decoration from France. The tiles are from Germany and marbles are from different European countries. The Congress library inside the National Congress is the second largest library in the country. The library has beautifully carved walls made of Italian walnut tree wood. You need a photo ID to get inside the building and the free guided tours in English run from Mon-Tue and Thur-Fri 11:00 AM and 4:00 PM. There are 257 members in House of Representatives and 72 members in House of senators. There are 3 floors of galleries or balconies for ordinary people in the House of Representatives only.
The beautiful National Symbol of Argentina in the National Congress building
Traveler’s Tip: The total stretch is absolutely walkable and is less than 5KM walking distance. Traffic congestion is bad, and walking can be a lot more faster. You will get used to of the city and the streets in a day or so.
Day 3: La Boca & Caminito Walking Tour>Obelisco> Teatro Colon>El Ateneo>National Museum of Fine Arts
I was really looking forward to this day. I still remember getting up excited and pushing my husband to wake up. It was the day to watch lot of tango in La Boca. I couldn’t wait to experience the vibrant, beautiful, artistic, colorful neighborhood of La Boca. We booked a walking tour and it was totally worth it. It costs about $200 ARS/person and required on the spot payment. Please DO CARRY CASH. We couldn’t find ATMs there. La Boca exceeded expectations in every sense. I got consumed by the beauty of this place.
Historically, it is a port which was used to trade agricultural goods and livestock with the UK. The trade was accompanied with influx of immigrants and soon enough, this place developed a character of it’s own. It is also popularly called as the art district of Buenos Aires with a fusion of Spanish, Italian, Russian, Jewish and Irish music, art and cuisine from the immigrants of the past. The district has very high level of tolerance for culture, religion etc. and is attracting modern immigrants from Peru, Venezuela, Taiwan and China as well.
The famous Tango music came from this neighborhood. Bandoneon is the musical instrument that is used for tango music and it is the only music where no percussion instrument is used. The interesting fact about Tango is that it became illegal at many times in the history for various reasons until it spread globally through the European concerts and performances. It was considered to be an activity for the poor and was shunned by the elite class. Milonga, in San Telmo is very famous where locals visit often to take tango classes. You may want to check it out. It was on my list but we couldn’t find time.
La Boca is also famous for Boca Juniors. Football is more important than religion and politics in Argentina. You would also see blue and yellow on fire trucks and in fire fighters uniform to show support. Boca Juniors won 4 national championships and 2 international championships. The stadium can house 50,000 people at a time and even today, you can observe some of the most intimidating games in this stadium. I would have loved to see a game in the stadium but our schedule was not aligned.
We had lunch in one of the famous restaurants, El Gran Paraiso, in La Boca. I am a vegetarian but I was accompanied by hard core non vegetarians, and believe me, they loved the steak that was served here. I recommend you to give it a shot.
After a relaxing lunch break, we came back to the city of Buenos Aires.
I have to say, Argentinians are also passionate about politics. (By this time, I was wondering, what are Argentinians not passionate about???) Parades of any kind around Obelisco, is very common. Obelisco, is a national historic monument and icon of Buenos Aires right at the intersection of avenues Corrientes and 9 de Julio. Interesting fact about 9 de Julio is that it is the widest street on the planet.
As you walk along, you will start to observe the perimeters of, Teatro Colón, the largest Opera House (40000 sq meters) in Argentina and also considered to be one of the 10 best opera houses in the world. Each of the chandeliers weigh a ton, has 300 bulbs and it took 3 exceptional artists to bring it to completion. The Chandelier in the center of the Opera House weighs 1.5 tons, has 700 light bulbs and can host 15 standing people for special music effects. Now that is super massive! The architecture of the building is marvelous, offering the best acoustics in the work to listen to Opera. We were lucky to observe one of the groups practicing during our visit and I couldn’t get off my seat. The whole experience was surreal and the music was enchanting. I would totally recommend you to see a live Opera performance if your schedule permits in Teatro Colon. It would make a lifetime memory.
The next destination for us was El Ateneo. It was a recommendation by a friend and when I read the word bookstore, I had to see it. El Ateneo is a bookstore that has been transformed from what used to be the Grand Spendid cinema. There is a coffee area inside the bookstore for you to pick your favorite book and sip freshly brewed coffee in a beautiful cinema looking bookstore. How awesome is that!
For a person who is into history, museum is a must on the list. We chose National Museum of Fine Arts as lot of descriptions are in English and we could walk around the museum ourselves. We rushed through the museum as we were tired and hungry at the same time. The 1 Hour Guided tours in English is available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays only at 1 PM.
Day 4: Recoleta Cemetery> Nuestra Senora del Pilar Church> “Hidden Graffiti And Urban Art Tour” by Biking Buenos Aires
I was very intrigued to see Recoleta Cemetery on the Things to Do list for Buenos Aires and I couldn’t imagine why a cemetery would make it to the list until I stepped into this museum of miniaturized monuments. The entry is free and you can use the map to look for the graves of the famous politicians and national figures. It must be one of the most happening cemeteries in the world.
I also indulged in shopping at Buenos Aires Design Mall that is right across the street. After a heavy lunch an Italian café, we were set to burn the calories in “Hidden Graffiti And Urban Art Tour” by Biking Buenos Aires. It costs about 55 USD/person for a 4 hours biking tour and you can choose from various recommended routes. How could I be in Buenos Aires and not see the Graffiti. So our choice was very simple. We wanted to learn about the Graffiti and the emotions behind them.
With this, we came to a close for our trip. We enjoyed our last coffee in the city center before we left for the airport. I went through waves of various emotions, love, passion, anger and sadness throughout the trip and there is no other place that I have been to, made me feel this way, I came back with so much appreciation for the people, place, food and lifestyle. I hope to go there again soon if I manage to convince my husband for an early retirement plan to party like nobody’s business…