Mates for sale in San Telmo market
So my trip to argentina has been a few years in the making. My friend Marcelo had asked me previously if I wanted to go to Buenos Aires with him and his family but I had always declined for various reasons. However this time I finally agreed to go. I would be spending Christmas in Buenos Aires in sunshine and 30 degrees! I had reservations about missing Christmas and I do regret bit being away for the holidays a little bit but this could be a once in a lifetime trip.
For those that know me well, they know I take forever to make decisions and hum and haw over everything. So packing for this trip was a two month mental struggle. I am also a bit of a camera bag whore so this was a great excuse to try out some new camera bags! I wanted to keep it light and compact but still bring all the gear I thought I needed (which is always more than I think). I am a "just in case" type of person so packing light does not come easy for me. After many configurations I finally settled on a FStop Tilopa camera backpack as my main hiking bag and also a FStop Guru camera backpack as my main carry-on and everyday walking around bag. My Tilopa would go in an empty rolling duffle so essentially I had two luggages in one. I needed the large backpack because we were going to be doing some overnight hiking in Patagonia and needed to bring a hiking backpack that could also carry my camera gear. I also brought with me my Kata orbit 110 as a small walk around messenger style camera bag. Trust me, it took me a long time to get to this configuration and it still wasn’t ideal. I would have loved to have taken one backpack and one small messenger bag but it wasn’t meant to be or more like I couldn’t figure out what not to take. So with the hard part of my trip out of the way (and yes for me this was the hard part!), I could concentrate on the other preparations for my trip.
My camera gear of choice was my Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm, 55-200mm, 10-24mm, 27mm, 8mm fisheye plus various accessories. To carry my gear I used my Kata and Fstop bags plus when hiking I used my peak design capture camera clip. In the past with my Nikon gear this set up would take an entire separate camera bag but I was able to fit everything in my Guru with room for a change of clothes plus iPad and other miscellaneous items.
My first week is in Buenos Aires would be myself because I was leaving a week earlier than Marcelo. On advise from another friend, I booked two places to break up the week and experience two different areas of the city. I liked the idea although you basically lose half a day moving locations. So with a lot of advice, finishing most of my work, and saying my goodbyes, I was finally on my way. Vamanos!
My first memorable experience in Argentina was taking the taxi from the airport to the hostel. I am pretty sure we have all heard soccer announcers and their crazy goal calls. Well that is exactly what I heard minutes into my taxi ride! Click on the photo to take a listen:
Every time you visit a new country where you don't speak the language there are times when you just cross your fingers and hope for the best. First taxi rides are one of those moments. It was an expensive taxi ride but that is because I paid a flat rate from the airport from an "official" taxi. It cost me $50 USD where as I didn't pay more than $10 USD the rest of the trip for a taxi in the city. Nonetheless, being to a new city and not wanting to get dropped off in a dangerous neighbourhood, I paid more upfront but who knows what headaches I avoided. I later found out there is a much cheaper bus I could have taken but it went to the bus terminal and not directly to my hotel.
I arrived at the El Secreto hostel with some daylight to spare and I wasn't particularly tired. So I dropped off my bags and took a walk around the neighbourhood which was called Almagro. There was a large shopping mall nearby so I went to check it out. It was called the Abasto shopping mall and it was extremely busy as Christmas shopping was in full swing. It was a little weird to see people getting their photos taken with Santa in their shorts but it was summer after all. After walking the mall I was hungry but didn't want to eat the fast food in the mall (which was expensive but popular). Goes to show you the power of branding. By now I was quite hungry and happened to pass an Asado (bbq). Argentina is famous for it's meat, in particular it's bbq so I had to try. The verdict was it was a lot of food but not the best Buenos Aires had to offer. I spent the rest of my first night in Buenos Aires having a beer with Marcelo and Sasha (owners) back at the hostel. They really went out of their way to make their guests feel comfortable and I highly recommend staying there.
My first full day in Argentina got off to a bit of a rocky start. I was going to take the Subte (subway) and head downtown. Normally this would be easy as there was a Subte station one block from my hostel. However, it was Sunday and they were doing maintenance on the B-Line which is the line I wanted. I wasn't confident enough to take the bus so I decided to walk and see some of the city on my way downtown. 40 minutes later and I didn't seem to be getting any nearer to downtown. In fact, the area was starting to look a little rough. Lots of auto garages, homeless people, why was I crossing railway tracks? It was the moment that I passed a shady looking character and he whistled to someone I couldn't see that I thought I decided I was going the wrong way and flagged down a cab. My suspicions were confirmed when the cab made a U-turn and headed downtown.
The first place on my agenda after being properly oriented downtown was the famous Teatro Colon. It is rated as one of the best theatres in the world and I really wanted to try out my new fisheye lens inside. The outside was nice but not spectacular. Once inside, I bought my ticket and waited for the English tour to begin. It was a large group but the tour guide was excellent and answered all questions. The lobby and foyers of the theatre were beautiful but the real star of the show was the main theatre. It was so beautiful that I knew I had to come back to see it again. I could imagine the performers on stage while I sat in my velvet seat. There wasn't a bad seat in the house and the sound must be amazing during an actual performance. I tried to soak it all up but our tour guide was nudging us along because the next group was coming through soon. If you come to Buenos Aires, the Teatro Colon is a must see and well worth the $18 tour. If you can plan it right, they offer free concerts once a month on the very same stage that biggest acts in the world perform on.
The rest of the day was a bit anti-climatic as I walked around down town Buenos Aires. Since I wasn't confident enough to try to take the bus back to the hostel, I ended up walking back which made for a long but successful day.
The next morning, my stay at El Secreto came to an end and I said my goodbyes to Sasha and Marcelo. I was now staying in the neighbourhood of Recoleta. I had rented an apartment instead of a hostel and it was fantastic. A spacious one bedroom in a trendy area that wasn't lacking for things to do. I met the landlord at the apartment and after a brief run through and getting the keys, I was settled in. I had three nights here before heading north to Iguazu falls.
My first stop of the day was the neighbourhood of San Telmo. I wasn't expecting much from this trendy neighbourhood but I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I went back a couple of times I liked it so much. It's a touristy neighbourhood but not tacky or over the top. It had a great feel from the boutique shops and cobblestone roads to the Sunday market that sprawls for many blocks. I started in Plaza Dorrego which is the main hub with many restaurants plus some tango dancers looking for some extra money. The neighbourhood had more of a trendy than tacky flavour to it. After exploring, I relaxed in a local restaurant and nursed a cold beer for an hour or so and people watched. San Telmo seemed like a real neighbourhood where locals actually hung out. I wandered through a less than busy food market and visited the slimmest house in Buenos Aires. It was time to move on from San Telmo and I gradually made my way downtown.
I walked through San Telmo all the way to Plaza de Mayo and walked around as twilight was setting in and the city lights were coming on. Marcelo had recommended that I try the Tortoni Cafe and it seemed like a good place to grab some dinner. The cafe was very cool. Food was simple but I could imagine how cool it would be to listen to a band here. To my surprise, when I came out of Cafe Tortini, it was pouring rain, and I mean pourrrrring. I was experiencing my first thunderstorm in Argentina. The streets were deserted and I made a mad dash for the closest Subte station. I managed to make it back to the apartment while only getting somewhat soaked :) I stayed up late that night while watching the lightning show and actually managed to capture a photo!
The next day was beautiful with no hint of what mother nature was up to the night before. My first stop of the day was the famous Recoleta cemetery. The cemetery itself is absolutely huge but it's biggest claim to fame is being the final resting place of Eva Peron (Evita). People still visit the cemetery to pay their respects to the most recognizable female Argentine. The mention of Evita sparks debate among Argentines. Not only is she one of the most recognizable figures in Argentina history but also one of the most polarizing. Argentines are not shy about giving their opinions and the mention of Evita would almost always garner some.
The cemetery itself was a labyrinth of tombs that needed a road map to navigate. You could easily spend an afternoon getting yourself lost in the cemetery. It was fascinating that the cemetery was it's own little world whose walls were right next to one the trendier malls in Buenos Aires with theatres and bustling restaurants.
Next up was taking the Subte across town to visit another famous neighbourhood: La Boca. La Boca is famous for being the home of the Boca Juniors football team and also the birthplace of the Tango. It was not recommended to go there at night so I made sure I had lots of daylight. La Boca is colourful with the houses and shops painted in vivid yellows and blues which also happens to be the colours of the La Boca Juniors. I was really looking forward to visit La Boca and perhaps that is why I was disappointed. It is very touristy and in my opinion and over hyped. You are inundated with offers for photo ops and everything is pretty high on the cheesy scale. It was way too tacky for my taste but I am glad I went none the less. I would still recommend going but keep your expectations in check and I wouldn't spend too much time there.
I was now confident enough to take the bus (well as long as it clearly said where it was going on the front). There was no Subte here and it wasn't recommended to walk to far in this area. So from La Boca, I paid my 2 pesos (~20 cents) and crossed my fingers that I was heading back into town. The bus went through San Telmo on the way so I decided to get off and wander around again. I was getting hungry and I had read about a good restaurant in the area called Desnivel. It was pretty good for the money and I was definitely getting my fill of Argentine bbq! At this point, I was running a bit low on cash so I actually decided to walk all the way back to the apartment (about 8km). Although the Subte was nearby and cheap, money was going to prove to be a bit of an issue....
So I will explain money situation. I had given US dollars to Marcelo before I left Vancouver and I had met up with his sister in law Barbi in Buenos Aires who gave me some blue market pesos (unofficial exchange rate). Well now I was running out of pesos and I couldn’t get hold of Barbi who I thought had the rest of my pesos (I was actually incorrect, Marcelo's other sister in law - Patri had the rest of my money). So I had a couple of options. I could try and change money at a bank, try the blue market cambios (money changers) downtown, or try to conserve as much as possible while trying to get hold of Barbi (who I thought had my pesos). I only had about 60 pesos (~$6) to last me the day. Doesn’t sound like much and it wasn't. So after 30 pesos for breakfast and 5 pesos for the Subte downtown, I was left with 25 pesos. No sign of Barbi so it was time for plan B. I was cautioned about using the cambios so I really didn’t know if that was a good idea. They didn’t exactly seem like the most trustworthy people and walking down Florida Avenue, they all seemed a bit dodgy as they tried to lure you by saying “Cambio!, Cambio!, Dollars!, Reals!” every time I walked by them. So plan B was to try my bank card and take out a little cash with the crappy exchange rate to tide me over. This didn’t go so well. I tried about six different banks and none of them took my debit card or visa, even the HSBC which almost always works. I was now starving and getting a little desperate. So I went into Burger King and tried to use my visa to order a hamburger and coke. Just to test it and see if it worked. After a couple of attempts and manually trying to swipe, it finally went through. That was a relief so if worst came to worse, I could use my visa. The problem with that is not a lot of places took visa and I would get the worst exchange rate ever. So I figured it was time for plan C - the cambios. After walking up and down Florida and Lavalle streets a few times, I picked a large and what I thought friendly looking cambio that looked no less trustworthy than the rest. When I asked the exchange rate I was pleasantly surprised how good it was (at least I thought so). I didn’t even try to haggle with him. To put into context, the bank rate is 8.5 to 1 and the unofficial rate I got was 12.3 to one. Quite the difference! So off I went, following the cambio to some side street and into the back of a t-shirt shop where I received my $1230 pesos for my one Benjamin Franklin. All in all, a relatively painless and friendly experience. Maybe I just happened to pick the right one as I couldn’t find any individual cambio reviews on trip advisor :)
So armed with my new found wealth, I didn’t really have a plan on what to do next. I ended up visiting the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires and I’m glad I did because it was fantastic. Nothing much to look at from the outside but the inside was beautiful and a perfect place to try out my fish eye lens. Argentina is a very Catholic country (the current pope is from Argentina) so it was a little weird taking photos in the Cathedral with people taking confession out in the open. None the less, no one seemed to mind.
It was getting close to 5pm and I really hadn’t done anything today although just changing money was a feat in itself :) I decided to walk to back to the apartment and rest up before venturing out for one last evening before my trip to Iguazu falls. My new plan was to have a light dinner and then take a tango lesson. I wasn’t sure about the lesson as I don’t really like to dance but I figured I should live a little and try something local even though I was going to be outside of my comfort zone. La Viruta Tango was recommended to me and it was reasonably close by. For 60 pesos, you could take a lesson at any level and then practice afterwards. If you wanted dinner, it wasn’t much more. I’m the type of person that likes to try new things but if by myself I often chicken out and even try to be late so as to give myself an excuse not to do it. So I arrived 10 minutes late but as usual, things in Argentina never start on time so I was actually early. No excuses this time! So I took the plunge and had my first tango lesson (in Spanish no less!). What made it actually easier is that most of the beginner students were travelers as well so Spanish was not really required. It was funny because every time I told someone I didn’t speak Spanish - they responded that they didn’t either in English. I felt kind of silly because I probably should have known most of the beginners would be foreigners. The lesson went pretty good and I am the proud owner of the first 7 basic tango steps :) It is one of those things that I am glad I forced myself to do.
So that concluded my first week in Buenos Aires! Next up, Iguazu Falls...