When you arrive in Buenos Aires, it’s as if you have arrived in Paris. That is to say, when you arrive in Paris, you tend to step out of Gare de Nord and wonder quite why you heard Paris was so romantic. Buenos Aires is a city that inspires great passions in people that cause them to stay many years, or run away screaming. As an old city, it is a melange of different architectural styles and each barrio around the centre has a distinct aesthetic which singles them out as a product from a particular age.
Unlike Rio de Janeiro for example, Buenos Aires isn’t immediately recognisable from the photos – it’s from experiencing the city that you realise its unique qualities. First of all, the bad. Crime. Buenos Aires is a safe place for the most part, but it is crawling with petty criminals that are just begging for the opportunity to relieve some gringo of his or her camera/cash/bag/dignity. I felt something of a guinea pig in this regard as I ran the gamut of criminal victimisation in the first four days of arriving. So much so, that if it weren’t for my booking a Spanish language course in the city, I’d have likely hopped on the next bus out, for which I am glad I didn’t. The criminal “scams” are well known, and not unique to Buenos Aires but here are a few you want to watch out for:
- The Mustard Trick: Usually committed by two or three people, this is a very common scam that is committed anywhere from the metro system, to the main tourist areas. What generally happens is that a well presented person, often an attractive younger woman, will ask you a question to distract you from ambient noises etc. Meanwhile, an accomplice will squirt some substance on your clothing. If you are lucky its mustard; if you are not, it will be some homemade “bird shit” which (from personal sad experience) is an appalling mixture that stinks far worse than any avian faecal matter. After this, your new friend, or some other agent, will point out the mess on your clothing and immediately help clean you off (and clean you out). This is pretty entry level stuff – why would your new friend immediately have tissues and a bottle of water to hand? Why is there mustard all over your back and down your legs? Twice this was tried on me, and twice I just walked off, albeit with crap all over my (without exception, nice clean) clothes.
- The Bag Open Trick: Again, often done in conjunction with an accomplice who distracts you while the opportunist opens your bag and snaffles whatever is on top. Often, two or more people will tailgate you to stop good citizens from seeing this going on as they cover their transgressions with their bodies. A quick zip opening and off they go. For me, I could feel the zip going immediately so I was able to grab my bag and tell the suddenly innocent looking people to fuck off. This is why even locals wear their back packs on their front in Buenos Aires. In fact, I’ve taken to using this as a measure of how safe an area is, in any place I go. If people are wearing their bags on their front, do likewise. When in Rome…
- Straight Up Theft: It’s not rocket science. If you bag is on the floor and not secured around a table leg etc, it will go. If your camera is on the table while you sip coffee in San Telmo, it will not be there very long. If you carry a wad of cash or a wallet in a loose pocket, expect it to be missing after attending a local market. This isn’t unique to BA, but suffice it to say that no-one here wears their wallet in their back pocket.
- A complete lack of police. After coming from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, I was immediately conscious of a total lack of law enforcement in the city. It’s no wonder that criminals thrive in Beunos Aires, when there is no one in blue to watch out for tourists and locals.
The good: Everything else. Except the metro system, called the Subte. A dank cesspit of a metro, which if you want to know hell, you take at afternoon rush hour. Like I did. And get felt up by greasy fat businessmen. Like I did. Fun. Fortunately the buses, while complicated, are easy and cheap and safe and run all night.
As I mentioned before, the city is divided in to distinct barrios (neighbourhoods) that all have a very unique feel. The centre of town, “Centro” as in most other cities and towns, is a crossroads to all parts of town. It’s a commercial district and a business area as well, and unlike the centres of many latin american cities is a bustling and (mostly) safe place the whole day long. The surrounding barrios are all of interest to the visitor for many different reasons – San Telmo is the oldest area of the city, with crumbling relics from years gone by that as per the Argentinian fashion, are not kept up very well at all. The decrepitude of many Argentinian buildings is a phenomenon that was explained to me (perhaps apocryphally) as a result of the agricultural wealth of the city. Most of the money from Buenos Aires came from the rural areas’ many estancias which generated huge amounts of wealth once the livestock and agrarian produce was exported. Any farm worth its salt would know that to spend the excess money would be shooting themselves in the foot, as no one knows what the following season will bring. Might there be a drought? A fungal invader? In any case, they would be able to cope with the excess cash, and apparently this mindset carries on today. You won’t find expensive cars in Buenos Aires, even in the wealthiest barrios, and the fronts of most of the buildings in town could do with a lick of paint, but they do not receive this very often. In San Telmo, this shabby chic brings a great deal of atmosphere to the cafes, restaurants, bars and plazas that saturate the neighbourhood, but also a slight air of danger. Much of this is due to the next door barrio of La Boca which is a flat out dangerous place outside of the main tourist drag through the centre of the barrio. Time and time again, despite being warned against it, tourists wander off the colourful main street out of curiosity. “How bad can it be?” they think, before being held up at knife (or even gun) point for their valuables. Obviously this doesn’t happen to everyone, but its far too common to dismiss as scare-mongering.
Fortunately, the rest of the city (that a tourist would visit) is far safer. Puerto Madero (above), the renovated dockside area, is a pristine area full of incredibly expensive apartments and restaurants, and it is a delightful place to walk around and soak up the sun and maybe get a fantastic street-side steak at one of the many parilla places along the main road along the nature preserve. Recoleta is possibly the most expensive area in all of South America, and full of palacios, the old grand buildings of the bourgeoisie now owned by wealthy institutions or divided in to phenomenally expensive apartments (first photo for example). Palermo is the largest area of interest, and subdivided in to nicknamed neighbourhoods: Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood to name two. This is the playground of the city, as well as being the nicest and most desirable places to live and stay. You want the best steak of your life? You come to Palermo, as many tourists do, mostly to the twin restaurants La Cabrera and La Cabrera Norte. You have to book in advance for the first one, and wait a long time to be seated for the second. It is expensive (as much as a London restaurant) but it’s worth it. For many, it is the highlight of their city visit.
Like Paris, Buenos Aires has its own Pere Lachaise cemetary in the form of Cemetaria de la Recoleta. While the former has Jim Morrison, the latter has Eva “Evita” Peron, which is always thronged with visitors, many of whom are surprised by the grave’s modesty. The tale of Evita’s body is a strange one, and almost certainly many embellishments false, but a wonderfully macabre story nonetheless. Soon after her death, she was embalmed and it was the intent of the authorities that her body would be on display a la Lenin, but before this could be arranged, Juan Peron was overthrown, he went in to exile and Evita’s body was not accounted for. The story goes that the body driven around the city to be hidden in various places. In one place it was molested, mutilated and raped (as much as a dead body can be raped) by soldiers, and soon after found its way in to the hands of the man who originally embalmed her. He developed a fixation with her corpse, having dinner with it, and sleeping with it. After this, it was offered to Juan Peron who was languishing in exile in Spain, who took ownership of it. As is only natural, Juan and his new wife decided to keep the corpse on a platform in the dining room. Soon after, Peron returned to power in Argentina and he took his ex-wife with him. The following year he too died, and his new wife Isabel donated the body of Eva to her (originally very poor) family, the Duartes. Subsequently she is buried in the Duarte’s very modest tomb in the cemetery The cemetery itself is a town of the dead, populated by the great and the good (read: the wealthy) of Buenos Aires. Many street names can be seen in the surnames of the deceased family members – and there is healthy competition as to who can keep the most lavish tomb.
You can certainly spend several days idling the time around the various barrios in town, the multiple markets (San Telmo on a Sunday is highly recommended), decent museums, trying the food or just having a coffee at one of the many cafes that exist on every block in the city. Stay a while, but not too long. It’s a big, brash, dirty, noisy busy city, and it will raise your blood pressure (the steaks and red wine help with this) so get out of town, up to Tigre perhaps, or out in to the pampas and hang out with some gauchos. You can even catch the ferry to Uruguary across the river Plate. Buenos Aires is the most important city in Argentina, but it’s not reflective of the country really. More time spent in the city is time lost in what the country has to offer in terms of natural beauty, outdoor pursuits and in general, warmer people. That said, many do fall in love with Buenos Aires and stay for many years. I wasn’t caught up in it quite as much, but maybe you will be.