Buenos Aires II to home

Buenos Aires II to home

We returned from Iguazu for the second week in Buenos Aires wanting to take in as much as possible. It was hard to imagine this would be the last week of a 14-month long trip.

Seen for the first time: tattooed mannequin

Seen for the first time: tattooed mannequin

It’s the middle of winter. We planned on following good weather as we traveled east across the globe but crossing the equator can be a game changer and the term ‘good weather’ is a relative one. After all, South African and (north) Argentinean winters are not like the ones at home. Long sleeve shirts or light fleeces were warm enough for the harshest conditions. Buenos Aires’ winter feels more like a fall or spring New England day. The locals are wearing winter coats, scarves, and occasionally I’ll see a pair of gloves. The dogs are sporting their winter coats, too.

Clowning around Buenos Aires

Clowning around Buenos Aires

There are many museums here and we visited quite a few. One of the best known is The Museo Nacional de Belles Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) which houses one of the best collections of fine art from the late 15th to the early 20th century.

Without bread, without work, Corrrrr, 1894

Sin pan y sin trabajo (Without bread and without work), Ernest de Carcova, 1894

The museum did not lack spirit of humor as there was a special exhibit from Argentinean artist/cartoonist, Miguel Rep, which made light of the very museum.

Miguel Rep's interpretation

Miguel Rep’s updated “Without bread and without work”

The food here is great. They call barbecue, “asado”, and it is taken as seriously as futbol. We went to a restaurant recommended by hosts Maria and Enrique, called El Placio de la papa frita, or, in English and far less appetizing-sounding, The Palace of Fried Potatoes. The tenderloin was awesome, of course, but the reason for the restaurant’s name is the way the fried potatoes are prepared. Each piece of potato was crispy and puffed up with air. Cindy and I wondered how they produced this neat little trade secret. Were there little elves in the back injecting each piece with air? We also tried the fried calamari which were the most tender and smooth tasting, not even a bit chewy.

Agua Corrientes. A  palatial public waterworks built ini 1894.

Agua Corrientes. A palatial public waterworks built in 1894.

Regarding futbol, or “soccer” in the parlance back home (I’m not quite sure why we call American football as such since it’s not really played with the foot very much), the World Cup started play while we were there. One evening we were meditating when there were cheers from the streets, horns blowing, car horns blasting, and a general loud hubbub outside. We thought the game had ended, but in fact, it was only a goal made by Argentina. Vamos Argentina!

San Martin square; giant  tv for public futbol viewing;  English Tower in the background

San Martin square; giant tv for public futbol viewing with Tower of the English in the background

We learned to look down when walking the streets in most cities. Buenos Aires was no exception. The sidewalks were not all smooth but at least there were no gaping deep shafts to fall into as there are in some cities. Yet, all was not roses in Buenos Aires, especially in Palermo, the area in which we were staying. The streets were littered with dog excrement. Except where shop owners and doormen had cleaned up, it was inexplicable why people did not pick up after their dogs. After all, didn’t they risk stepping in some themselves?

Recoleta cemetery is like a small walled-in city where the streets are made up of tombs and mausoleums. Many of the city’s aristocrats, rich and famous are buried here. One of the stars is Eva Peron.

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery

There are more twists and turns in Spanish than in dancing the Tango. In Buenos Aires there’s an accent exhibited by the double ll’s and the “y’s” pronounced with a “sh” sound. So, after learning to sound those letters as a “g” in Medellin, Colombia, then as a “y” in Ecuador, I had to make another leap in my mind by double-translating from “g” or “y” to “sh” in Buenos Aires. Of course, in Porto Iguazu I got thrown off again since, surprisingly, their pronunciation was like in Medellin. Go figure!

Tango in San Telmo

Tango on the streets of San Telmo

Our friends Gerardo and Antonela took us to a milonga (a tango dance hall) for a taste of the real local Buenos Aires. They are not tango dancers and had never been to this place either, so it just added to the whole adventure. The milonga, called The Catedral, was in a monstrous-sized hall, perhaps a former theater, and was decked out in funky furniture and decor; they used the old, “wooden cable dispenser on its side” trick for one of the tables. There was a tango lesson going on while we ate, and interestingly, we recognized a couple of the teachers as they were the same dancers we’d seen in San Telmo our first week in Buenos Aires. The skilled dancers were exciting to watch as they maintained their gracefulness despite steps that didn’t look simple to execute.

Fuerza Bruta was a unique theatrical experience. Audience members stand on a floor of a large hall while the theater staff push them around to make room for performers to wildly swing, run, drum, jump, stomp, swim, slide, and splash, over, around and among the audience. A flood of the senses!

At Fuerza Bruta

At Fuerza Bruta

The last night in Buenos Aires –and the last night of our voyage– was spent at our airb&b digs where our hosts became further embedded hosts for a night of music produced by ‘Songs from a Room’, an organization with venues in 80 cities that –by invitation-only– host audiences and musicians who play original music in hosts’ homes. The empty wine bottles stacked up over the evening for this byob event. This chance occurrence provided us a very unique and enjoyable evening.

'Sounds from a room' music party

‘Sounds from a room’ music party

The next day we headed back home. We flew through Santiago, Chile and Toronto, Canada. I wondered what they were like.

Coming into Santiago, Chile

Coming into Santiago, Chile

Cindy and I looked at the backpacks we’d been living out of for 14 months. Then we looked at the boxes upon boxes of stuff at home, and then back at each other and wondered together, ‘What are were going to do with all this stuff?’.

bill and cindy

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Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls was nothing short of amazing. It was not on our original itinerary and a week before we firmed up our plans to go, Iguazu Falls, one of the largest in the world, actually ‘closed’. There had been so much rain in the areas that feed the falls, some of the walkways in the national park on the Argentina side flooded and washed away thereby forcing the closure. We waited a few days until they opened up a dam down river which caused the waters to recede enough and the falls to re-open. The heavy rains also resulted in spectacularly high volumes of water flowing from the falls.

big falls I

Luck continued to run our way. It costs about $150 each for visas to cross into Brazil but I read that sometimes they don’t require a visa if you’re just going to cross the border for the day. We shared a taxi with a British couple who also were supposed to have visas to cross into Brazil. No hassles and no problem crossing the border.

We enjoyed two sunny days viewing the falls, the first day was in Brazil, the second, Argentina. The water was dark from the runoff but the sun and mist resulted in rainbows everywhere.

full rainbow

The walkway on the Brazilian side runs right out into the middle of the river. Brazil has the best panoramic views.

Panorama from Brazil

Panorama from Brazil

The second day was spent in the national park in Argentina. Some of the walkways had indeed washed away.

Iguazu falls in Argentina

Iguazu falls in Argentina

This view is also from Argentina. The Brazilian walkway is between the two falls.

Brazil from Argentina. The Brazilian walkway is between the fall’s two levels.

The town of Puerto Iguazu in Argentina is at the border of three frontiers, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Aside from a couple of walks, there’s not much to do so we headed back to Buenos Aires.

three frontiers

Buenos Aires and San Antonio de Areco

Buenos Aires and San Antonio de Areco

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 beautiful and opulent Colon Theater

The beautiful Colon Theater. In addition to a tour, we caught a free world-class concert

Inside the opulent theater

Inside the opulent theater

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.

Plaza de Mayo

Plaza de Mayo

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.

The Obelisk is a national historic monument and symbol of Buenos Aires

The Obelisk is a national historic monument and symbol of Buenos Aires

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.

Tango which originated in Argentina and Carlos Gardel was one of the most prominent figures

Tango originated in Argentina and Carlos Gardel was one of the most prominent figures

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.

In front of  La Bombanera, the Boca Juniors stadium

In front of La Bombonera, the Boca Juniors stadium

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 street fair

San Telmo

San Telmo was also a venue to see some fabulous tango dancers for free

Street 'performer'

Street performer

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.

Cindy plays gaucho as Julian looks on

Cindy plays gaucho as Julian looks on

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.

 Juan Pablo belts out traditional gaucho folklore music

Juan Pablo belts out traditional gaucho folklore music

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.