Summer in the city. It’s easy to see why so many locals leave and flock to the coast, similar to many major cities around the Mediterranean. The leading story in the news is that it’s going to be 40 degrees, and the government have issued an orange weather alert. A sweaty news presenter is interviewing equally sweaty morning commuters, the verdict: it’s fucking hot. There’s not a great deal you can do in heat like that, apart from a casual exploratory stroll around the local neighbourhood. A cold drink here, some alfajores there, pop into a shop and pretend to browse just for that sweet, sweet air con.
After a couple of days, the heat returns to a relatively chilled 30 degrees, and we can venture further afield. Buenos Aires feels similar to major European cities in many ways – each neighbourhood is different and has clearly defined character. Palermo is leafy and safe, lined with independent bars, vegan restaurants, and boutique shops. La Boca on the other hand, is gritty, loud, and busy. While all of the neighbourhoods have something to offer, Buenos Aires isn’t really a place to rush across the city ticking things off a list, it’s more about soaking up its differences.
A walk around the old downtown area will reveal hustle and bustle, amongst the grand architecture (from when Buenos Aires wanted to be known as “the Paris of South America”), as well as key historical points of interest.
The most memorable aspects of its history are associated with the now famous characters which led them. Such as Eva Peron (Evita), who may have officially only been a First Lady, but her actions lead to huge developments in day to day life across Argentina. It was her determination and resilience which led to women being granted the right to vote in 1947 and later preventing the formerly commonplace attacks by police on homosexuals. She’s still celebrated today, immortalised in the heart of the city with an awe-inspiring mural, and laid to rest in the iconic Recoleta cemetery.
Another of Buenos Aires’ key landmarks is La Casa Rosada (The Pink House), which is the executive office of the President. Due to its political relevance, it also brings up Argentina’s torrid past, in particular Videla’s military dictatorship of 1976 – 1983. During this period, often referred to as The Dirty War, over 30,000 people
(particularly political dissidents) disappeared, as well as large scale kidnappings and torture. A large number of these were sent on death flights, where they’d be drugged, put on a plane, and then thrown from the plane into the river. The effect of the kidnappings is still present – there’s a prominent charity (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) who work tirelessly to help reunite families whose babies were taken from them with the citizens who believe they were kidnapped as children, and are looking for their genetic family.
La Casa Rosada also serves as the space for today’s citizens to raise their voices. Formal protests are commonplace in Buenos Aires (some figures state up to five recognised protests a week on average), where they typically march through the city streets to La Casa Rosada. In this case, this party was marching against increases in rates for basic services, such as gas and water, which many are unable to afford.
While these types of protest are common, the situation is more stable than in years gone by and they typically pass by without incident. Unlike a series of protests in December 2001 however, which evolved into full scale riots where 39 people were killed by the police. This was sparked by economic policy which essentially led to masses of normal, hard-working people being unable to withdraw money from their banks, and then having their life savings wiped out completely. The riots led to a political meltdown, to the point where Argentina had five different presidents in ten days.
Leaving the city center, La Boca is another of Buenos Aires’ main tourist attractions. However if you ask a few locals before heading out there, they don’t exactly sell it and it can sound quite offputting. It’s known for a few reasons: colourful streets (Caminito), and La Bombonera (the home of Boca Juniors, Argentina’s biggest football team). It’s also known for being unsafe and potentially violent if you venture off the main tourist streets. A walk through Caminito turned out as expected – full of visitors looking for the perfect selfie spot, lots of people selling rubbish and a general feeling of tourist exploitation.
A few corners later, La Bombonera appears. I was gutted that Boca were playing away from home that weekend, but can only imagine what the atmosphere is like. Every building in the area is covered in their iconic blue and yellow, with statues of local idols from years gone by lining the streets. The fact that the area is so rough around the edges is part of what builds its character, but it’s hard not to feel a bit uneasy when you break away from the mass of tourists. A sneaky peak through open doorways confirms two things: that Boca Juniors reign supreme here, and that this is still very much a working class area where life is not easy.
If you’re tangled up, just tango on
After dragging Holly around a football stadium, I needed to pay back my moral debt, and had agreed to a tango class. I have two left feet, hips fashioned from concrete, and sharp elbows. Being around me on a dancefloor is not a fun experience for anyone at the best of times, but when in Buenos Aires…
The thing about tango is that all of the individual moves are easy – it’s when you have to put together seven of them that it gets difficult. After half an hour of forgetting the steps, it clicked into place and I was positively gliding around the room. The downside of this was that it meant we then had to swap partners, leading to the most intense bout of concentration I’ve had to muster in a long time. One thing’s messing up and laughing with your girlfriend, but I didn’t want to face the wrath of the diminutive 40 year old Argentinian who had snapped me up.
Steak as a religious experience
Tango out the way, I could go back to enjoying myself. Argentina is one of the top meat eating countries in the world, and when you’re there it’s easy to see why. Every meal is unapologetically built around meat, and every meal is delicious because of it. But steak is something else.
I was kind of hesitant in a way. A steak dinner in Buenos Aires just sounds so cliched, but it has to be done. You wouldn’t go to Italy and not gorge on pizza and pasta. But what if it disappoints? What if you pick the wrong place? Fortunately neither of those happened, largely down to a tip off from a Buenos Aires native about the parrilla (steakhouse) to visit. Luckily it was only a 10 minute walk from our apartment, but it didn’t stop us walking straight past it. It’s an easy mistake to make, as even when the place is packed on a Saturday night, the curtains are drawn, the doors are locked, and the “Closed” sign is on display. There’s not even a name above the door (and I’m not at liberty to disclose their name myself). The local story suggests that’s the case because if you don’t already know about it, you don’t need to – especially any tourists that may have accidentally stumbled through this part of town. However if you try to peer through the locked door, someone might just open it, and if you’re really lucky they might just have one table left for dinner that night.
The first thing you see after being let in is the charcoal barbecue, with stacks of meat piled high, manned artfully by someone who’s clearly been keeping the locals happy for a long time. I eagerly take my seat at the table next to his work area, almost like a worshipper at the altar, from where I can see every piece of raw meat transformed into a heavenly dinner. I naively ask how many days that mountain of meat will last, and the response is a wry snigger and that it will all be gone by 10pm. He was right.
After taking a seat I’m enthusiastically greeted by Ramon, the host/head waiter/personality of the restaurant. Everyone else, both customers and staff alike simply call him “el jefe” (the boss). This man knows the name of every single person in his restaurant, and they’re all eagerly greeted with a hug. This is a man in control of his kingdom, bursting with energy and passion for his craft. Not bad for someone who must be almost 65 years old.
We order whatever Ramon recommends and 15 minutes later Ramon returns. He sets down the perfect steak alongside a bowl of homemade chimicurri before scurrying off to another table of his regulars. The steak was indescribably good so I won’t try – it was simply the best steak I’ve ever had. Every bite is savoured.
20 minutes later and we’re faced with a tough decision: do we just call it a night, or do we order desert, if not for any other reason then for an excuse to stay in this heavenly place? Our mind is made up when we see Ramon go past with a plate of homemade flan. We quickly order the same: the flan is bouncy and fresh, and is served with enough dulce de leche you could swim in it, and so thick that it hangs off the spoon.
After taking the time to finish a couple more beers and soak up the atmosphere, we’re let out by the waitress who has been faithfully operating the locked door all night. The locals say that when it rains in Buenos Aires, it really rains. The 40 degree heat has made way for an immense storm, with ferocious rain and rolling thunder, as if the world was ending. And if it had been, at least I would have gone out on all time high.