This place is crazy! I heard that phrase from locals several times within the first 24 hours of our arrival in Buenos Aires. The first time was in response to my story of the taxi ride from the airport. I read that taxis were required to use meters but apparently those rules don’t apply to taxis from the airport which is outside city limits. We were already in a taxi and on our way, perhaps a few hundreds yards from the airport, by the time I understood this (and the ridiculous rate he was going to charge) so I asked the driver to immediately stop and let us out. The driver wasn’t angry or insulted. He asked us to wait a minute while he called another cab. A couple of minutes later another taxi showed up, we switched cabs and got a ride to the city for a reasonable price.
The existence of the so-called blue market exchange rate (actually, a black market that is pretty much out in the open and widely accepted) is another fact of life in Argentina. It may not exactly be crazy, but it highlights the extremely distressed financial state of the country’s economy. The official exchange rate hovers around $8 Argentinian Pesos to $1 US dollar, but the blue market exchange rate is around $11 AR to $1 USD….just shy of a 30% difference. Florida Avenue, a main tourist and local pedestrian thoroughfare, is filled with hawkers every few yards yelling “cambio, cambio, cambio” (money exchange), as if once was not enough. In researching this fiscal morass before arriving, I became acutely aware how important it is to spot fake counterfeit bills which apparently flood the market. Fortunately, going to Florida Street was not necessary as we had reliable recommendations of reputable places for money exchange–at the blue rate, of course.
Buenos Aires is distinctly different from any of the other seven or eight Latin American countries visited. It looks very European and has a palpable cosmopolitan flair. There are large expanses of open public spaces and in the two rainy days we experienced, we hit four museums while leaving plenty more to explore. The residents also look distinctly different as they are taller and have lighter skin. I also noticed that the men here seem to have a much greater propensity for baldness. I’m thinking that if I wasn’t wearing quick-dry pants all the time, I might actually get away with blending in as a local.
We’re lovin’ the people here. The residents are known as porteños (an inhabitant of the port) and we found them very friendly and hospitable. Our generous b&b hosts treated us to an asado (barbecue) on their patio with some of their family. Also, we reconnected with Gerardo, a porteño friend we met on the Blue Cruise in Turkey. He and his girlfriend, Antonela, graciously had us over to their home for dinner and great conversation. What delightful treats!
We explored this beautiful and engaging world class city by bus, Subte (subway), bike, and of course, by walking. We took a bike tour through the La Boca section of the city in which resides Caminito, a street museum and alley known as the inspiration for a famous Tango song of the same name.
La Boca is also known as a rough, hard-core working class neighborhood and home to the famous Boca Juniors futbol (soccer) club. We would have liked to have gone to a soccer game but since the World Cup is on, all other play is suspended. It was suggested that we avoid soccer games since they can also be places where some people go to brawl, as much as, or perhaps even more than watch games.
San Telmo is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. It has a bohemian flair and its cobblestone streets are home to numerous cafes, antique shops, and tango parlors. On Sundays there is a street fair; one of the longest I’ve ever seen and featured artists, tango dancers, musicians and street performers.
San Telmo was also a venue to see some fabulous tango dancers for free
We split our time in Buenos Aires by heading out of the city, first to San Antonio de Areco, a town on the plains outside Buenos Aires which stands as the center of traditional gaucho culture. Distinct in many ways from cowboy culture in the US such as the clothing, the music and the gun-slinging of the old west, it shares various functional similarities as well as the reputation of the gaucho as a rugged individual and free spirit.
We visited a ranch, Estancia Florita to experience a taste of gaucho life. We had a great day being hosted by gaucho Juan Pablo and his ‘brother’ (actually his cousin), Julian. We did (or watched) all the typical things done on an estancia, drinking wine, eating tasty asado, riding horses, singing songs and playing guitar, and showing off horsemanship skills. My horse was aptly named, Tornado, and it seemingly had two speeds, walk and full gallop–definitely his preference! It was the equine equivalent of a Porsche. I was even given the chance to rope a calf which needed to be doctored for an infection. My roping skills need more practice. We watched one gaucho game which dated back to the 17th century and involved riding at full gallop to catch a small ring which hung from above using a pencil-sized object.
My love of irony bizarrely extends to our experience with the buses. The seats of these excellent condition double-deckers are incredibly comfortable with wide, soft, moulded cushions in which you easily melt. As I could see from our front seats on the second level of the double-decker, the bus drivers are not at all aggressive and, unlike the car drivers, they stay neatly into their lanes. There were no food vendors or unplanned stops as in Colombia and Ecuador. But the comfortable ride, tranquil mood and comfort end with the buses’ timeliness. We arrived at the docking station on time only to find that our bus had not even reached the platform for its scheduled departure. In fact, it would be another half hour before our bus arrived at the station. We were unsettled but the other passengers looked unperturbed by the tardiness and seemed to take it in stride. Buses in every other country ran on time, but here in one of the more developed countries where we comforted on rolling lounge chairs, the buses were consistently late. One of the locals explained this as ‘tradition’.
We had concerns about the ride back to Buenos Aires as we had to catch a plane to Porto Iguazu. That bus was only 20 minutes late and didn’t cause concern, especially when we got to the airport and saw that our plane was running late.