Reunion in Buenos Aires
My grandfather Fernando and his favorite brother Rafael left north Spain for two very different parts of the world, my grandfather to the USA and his brother to Argentina. Almost 90 years later, I brought my Mother to Buenos Aires to meet her first cousin and her family. Sharing the same February birthday, the cousins had communicated throughout their lives but never met. It was an exciting and emotional journey.
We arrived on a beautiful spring day with crisp, cool temps. I think our spring is the best time of year to visit Buenos Aries, but most Americans seem to travel there during our winter to either get on or off a cruise ship. The cruises that sail around the tip of South America are generally during the first months of the year when it is hot and humid.
Benefits of Staying Away from the Central Tourist District
Looking for a bit more authentic experience, we stayed at a boutique apartment hotel in the Palermo district. Leafy streets filled with cafés are a hallmark of this area and it proved to be a good choice. Arriving too early for check-in, we met a rep dropping off our local cell phone and then immediately took advantage of the nearby Café Tolon for a sweet and delicious Argentinian favorite – a medialuna, yum. The area was crowded with locals and after the overnight flight, we enjoyed being able to walk around and people-watch.
Even though we were visiting family, I didn’t want them to have to shuttle us around to see basic tourist sights, and I also knew their car was in a wreck and out of service. After lunch, we rushed to unpack and hit the town with a private guide, I arranged to take us on a quick overview tour of the city. It was May 1st, a labor holiday, which made the streets quieter than normal and very good for getting around efficiently.
We took in the Plaza de Mayo, saw Evita’s balcony at La Casa Rosada, the Catedral Metroplitana, and watched some traditional labor demonstrations. We loved the colorful La Boca barrio and Caminito with all the artists and interesting people. In one area, a kid was intently watching two young men play a game of chess while puffing on their cigarettes.
Final Home of Evita: The Recoleta
The highlight of the tour was the famous La Recoleta Cemetery opened in 1822 and is truly unique. It was far more interesting than I ever imagined and a guide is very helpful to fill you in on all the fascinating history, stories, and legends within these storied walls. Without the guide, we would’ve had no idea what we were actually seeing along the dense maze of alleyways and avenues. We felt lucky to be there during the 4 PM feeding of the cemetery’s obviously well-fed cats, probably kept as mousers. They were everywhere; eating, lounging, sleeping, and watching.
By now I was pretty much in full panic about my conversational ability since the Porteños accent includes a “ja” sound for “ll” and “y” – it was hard for me to adapt, and even hard for my Mother, whose first language is Spanish.
At the end of our first day we met the family and it was a wonderful and emotional occasion. Language-wise, I held my own part of the time, eventually getting adjusted to the accent only to be bedeviled by vocabulary differences (e.g. boliche being a roast stuffed with chorizo for us, vs meaning a disco for them) – lol, we had some good laughs along the way. For dinner, they took us to a place with pizza – no kidding. There is a huge Italian presence and influence here and they billed this pizza-like “none other.” It did have green olives on top, but I’ve had a lot of pizza in my day, so it didn’t seem that unusual. The same can’t be said for the odd chickpea patties that accompanied the meal and were a new experience.
A word about shopping here: it is fantastic for leather goods. I am not generally a shopper of clothing when I travel but made an exception here. If you order items when you first arrive, they can be quickly tailored to fit your size and specifications. We headed down to Avear (street) and the area near Florida Street. There are some sketchy areas and some shysters around, so be sure to ask around for reputable stores. Many of the shops will transport you to and from your hotel, but that may not mean they are the best, so do your homework. We went to several, with Silvia y Mario being a favorite. There are some hotels in the area, good for a quick lunch or dinner stop. Later, we shopped all along Santa Fe, buying lots of gorgeous purses. They had plenty of shoes as well, but I figured they would be harder to transport. You need to pack lightly to visit this city.
Stand Don’t Sit
One evening, our cousin took us to the microcenter (downtown) for a free concert in front of the cultural center. We saw the most amazing flamenco dancing, with two men performing a dueling-flamenco routine. The tango music was fabulous. The only thing not wonderful was that everyone stood for the duration. At home, we’d all be in lawn chairs or picnic blankets of some description. Afterward, we needed to sit, find a bathroom, and have a snack, so we headed to the touristy but historic Café Tortoni. I’m sure our cousin would’ve never gone there, but I wanted to see it, and it was charming (plus we got to sit).
Being in town on a Sunday meant we could hit the San Telmo Antique market on Plaza Dorrego and shops along Calle Defensa. It was great fun and another absolutely beautiful day, but disappointing in terms of finding anything worth buying. There was a street fair ambiance with performers, mimes, musicians, and big crowds. I found nothing to buy.
We had the family meet us in the area and treated everyone to a delicious and long late lunch at the traditional well-known parrilla, La Brigada.
Best Meal in Town
Buenos Aires has great food, but the very best was made for us by our cousin Marta. We took a Remíse (safest type of taxi) to the home she shares with her husband for a feast in our honor. She made empanadas, an amazing stew – locro criollo, homemade wine, and flan with dulce de leche. It was enough food to feed me for a week. Later I got the recipe for the delicious locro criollo and gained even more appreciation for this incredibly time-consuming and delicious dish.
We couldn’t get enough tango, taking in two tango dinner shows while in town. We hit a more local show with the family at Esquina Homero Manzi (not sure this is still open). No one could ever explain what “accompanied with couches” meant on the menu. Another night Mom and I headed over to the famous tourist show, Carlos Gardel, and loved every minute. We had first row seats next to some lively and really funny ladies from Australia who kept us entertained before the show. And, the dancing – wow, it was Broadway-quality incredible!
We visited some other spots while in this beautiful country, and between trips to other parts of Argentina, Buenos Aires remained our base, so we were in and out of town. One evening we ventured to Puerto Maduro for a great steak dinner along the water.
In the early 1900’s we had another Spanish relative, a great, great-Aunt who had also immigrated to Buenos Aires and who died there with no heirs. Since the first subte (subway) in South America was opened in 1913 and was running at least one of the restored wooden cars (a La Brugeoise car), I thought it would be interesting to take the line and imagine what her life was like in that era. And so we did. Line A runs in a straight line less than 10 kilometers from the Plaza de Mayo to Plaza Miserere.
On our final day, we were supposed to have about eight hours between our domestic flight returning from Bariloche and an international flight leaving for Miami (they have two airports), and I had great plans for a fairly adventurous excursion. But our plane was hours late, so with our guide Lucia, we reverted to plan B and visited the pretty neighborhood of San Isidro, stopped by an art fair, and got a general feel of this very wealthy part of town. We had a chance to talk about why there is so much graffiti here –it is everywhere, apparently a very popular form of expression.
We definitely felt the heart and rhythm of Buenos Aires.