The Mystique of Buenos Aires

So. When organising my blog I sit down and try to think of ideas for new posts. Sometimes, I come up with a bunch of ideas. Sometimes my mind draws a blank. Remember, it’s nearly a year since I travelled outside of even my city so I am doing my best to find new things to say about places I’ve been and new angles to approach things from. Sometimes I will flick through my travel photos until I think ‘hey, I haven’t posted about that before’ or ‘I’ve stuff I wanna say about that that I haven’t’ and more occasionally I think ‘I should write a post about that place/city/far off moon’. And so I thought I should write something the Argentinian capital and somewhat alluring destination of Buenos Aires.

And I scheduled in for this date, the 23rd of November. Usually I know roughly what I am going to write about – I will come up with a title. But in the box on my blog calendar for the 23rd of November, 2020, I simply wrote ‘Something on BA’. And there you have it. Ummm… what was the original idea? Did I have an original idea?

Well, okay, enough phaffing about. I know what I want to say, to some extent. I want to describe the feeling of being in Buenos Aires. As grand or as limiting as that may be. Some places inspire, or disappoint, or uplift, or… disappoint again. There’s a lot that goes into a city – its design, vision, the planning, the scale, and of course the people. Buenos Aires doesn’t disappoint, if anything it intimidates.

2016 was the year I finally hit the continent of South America for the first time in my life. I flew to Quito and onto Galapagos, on tour with a group from various parts of the globe. One Australian couple were as new to South America as I was, and had started in Lima, Peru. On the way from the airport to their hotel they were robbed by a guy on a motorbike whilst inside a taxi at an intersection. Money, cameras and passports all gone and they hadn’t made it to their hotel. I wont forget that story in a hurry.

Lima

Still, I wasn’t so worried for some reason in Lima. Probably because I was shown around by some locals which always makes you more relaxed. Another guy from Europe was living in the Buenos Aires and described being robbed by a man with a gun for his smartphone in the middle of the day in the middle of the business district of Buenos Aires. For some reason this affected me a lot more than the Lima story – although I would be in Lima much sooner than Buenos Aires.

So I was immediately apprehensive about Buenos Aires. And then I arrived. It’s a big city. The ‘metro population’ last year, according to the interweb was more than 15 million, which still isn’t as much as a few cities in  Brazil, but is reasonably bloody big in my books coming from a country whose biggest city has a metro population of around 6 million.

And it’s not just big by numbers. Although it’s no Manhattan, and the buildings don’t really get quite as tall, they are plenty big enough and built in a time of economic prosperity from the second half of the nineteenth century through until the depression of 1929/30. Since then Argentina’s economy has never really recovered. It’s one based greatly on exporting food, and I was told on a tour in the Palacio Barolo, it just can’t produce/export enough. Basically it was a bit of a false economy.

Buenos Aires

But when times were booming, the city reflected this economic success and the buildings became bigger, taller and more imposing. And still you can feel that era that saw the city at its absolute best when you walk around it. But at the same time, I felt somewhat on edge.

I should have prefaced that, though, but saying I happily walked around with my DSLR around my neck most of the time, even on the metro. And I should also point out that I did not get robbed, mugged, pick-pocketed or anything like that. But I felt an air of apprehension that I didn’t feel in any other South American city, and that includes Rio which I actually felt quite relaxed in – perhaps because it was the final stop on my trip.

In some ways you do get a bit of New York City feel with the buildings of Buenos Aires. The exteriors at least, you can’t help but feel NYC was a bit of an inspiration for the tall Buenos Airean buildings. But then there is something unique about BA, does it relate to the Perons? I don’t know but they, and obviously especially Eva, are tied up in it. The Tortino Café is apparently 160 years old, so this dates back to the mid 19th century. It’s like stepping into a time machine, and it’s hard to know what year you’ve gone back to. It does still feel more 1920s, although it’s not Art Deco, my favourite architectural period I think. Of course, it’s bustling with tourists which spoils it a little and I believe there are a whole raft of cafes which have long histories in Buenos Aires – something I would certainly check out if I ever went back.

The buildings are the city, I think it’s fair to say, in so many ways as far as Buenos Aires is concerned. As a visitor you are able to visit so many as well, including the ‘Rose Palace’, which is the Presidential Palace. Here see reminders of the Perons with portraits in some of the rooms you are shown. And Eva Peron is still at the heart of this city. It’s typical to visit her grave, in this most stunning graveyard, and she has a museum naturally, and these are popularly visited by locals as well as foreigners. Is it because she had a musical made about her? Certainly not. Something about her spoke to so many Argentinians. And yet today there is a divide, as I imagine there always was. Our guide in the Palacio Barolo referred to them as ‘Peronistas’, clearly using it as a derogatory term. The suggestion was that they were responsible for the current situation – as in the economic turmoil which has punctuated Argentinian politics for the last couple of decades or more. Turmoil that has seen defaults on loans and devaluation of the currency.

Head to the train station area, and you notice an increase in the number of homeless. Here, I felt that keeping my camera out of view was more than prudent. A system that has let too many people slip through the cracks, a system that offers little to many. Juxtapose this with the incredible Palacio Paz, this incredibly opulent palace in the middle of the city. Your draw just drops. It was built late 1800s and has more secret passageways and beautiful rooms than you’d ever imagine.

Palacio Barolo is somewhat different. Built just before the depression, it’s 100 metres high with a lighthouse on top. It’s eerie, and on some floors feels like some sort of sanitorium. It has a twin building in Montevideo, and between 1926 and 1936 it was the tallest building in Buenos Aires. A tour is really a must if you visit Buenos Aires, there’s something about this building, inspired by Dante’s vision of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, which captures the spirit of Buenos Aires, a mystique of beauty, extreme grandeur, mixed with a sense of uncertainty and indeed poverty.

Did I like Buenos Aires? I don’t know. It’s not my favourite city by a long way, but there is a curiousness I have from visiting that actually makes the thought of returning appealing. It’s not on my radar right now, not much travel is. But some day in the future I hope to get the chance to know more about Buenos Aires.

See Also –

Buildings of Buenos Aires – Palacio Paz

Buildings of Buenos Aires – Palacio Barolo

Argentina, Bueneos Aires and Eva Peron

Thanks for reading – May the Journey Never End!

9 thoughts on “The Mystique of Buenos Aires

  1. BA was my first city in South America. I had mixed ideas about how it would be, hearing about its economic hardships. We found it quite safe, at least we didn’t have any problems. But as you said it wasn’t our favourite city either, we neither loved nor hated it. But we didn’t get to some of the places you did like the Palacio.

  2. I find this post well written, with an introspective way of judging the effect of a city. On my first visit to BA, I didn’t like it, I was mostly remembering heavy traffic and light rain part of the time. Then I went back and my perception changed. The following times I based myself in Soho and found a very European cosy atmosphere from which to explore the rest of the city’s diversity with curiosity.

  3. Although I’ve never been to Buenos Aires, I can understand the feeling of being apprehensive in a new, sometimes dodgy environment. On my trips to major cities, I do my best to stay within the touristy parts of town and not talk to any “overly-friendly” people (who are most likely pickpockets). I’ve felt more-or-less safe exploring alone in Europe, but I will say that I’ve opted to go on group tours in Turkey, Peru, and China, not just for safety reasons, but also for a peace of mind of getting around places. I actually have great interest in visiting BA someday (as well as Iguazu Falls), so I’ll go in with an open mind to see if it’s worth it or underwhelming. Thanks for sharing, Andy!

  4. We had a great experience in Buenos Aries when we were there two years ago. Except for a few areas we were warned about, we walked everywhere. We loved staying in the pretty neighbourhood of Palermo Soho with all its great restaurants. My best memories are of the Recoleta Cemetery, the opera house and a walking tour we did in La Boca. Great memories of Argentina in general.

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