Fine Travel Consultant Kylie Bryers flew to Buenos Aires this year on Air New Zealand's direct service from Auckland to experience a true South American holiday
“Oh what a circus, oh what a show” are the opening lyrics of my favourite musical about Argentina. This could perfectly sum up the bustling metropolis of 17 million strong Buenos Aires.
Only 12 hours from Auckland on Air New Zealand direct flight, Buenos Aires is one of the more exciting destinations you can get to in that relatively short amount of time.
With a distinctly French look due to a wealthy 19th century upper class who brought in architects from France to build huge chateau style mansions, the city’s fortunes have risen and fallen many times over the years, but the buildings remain in various states of glory or disrepair. In certain parts of the city, you really will think you’re in Paris (assuming you can disregard all of the political graffiti scrawled across the walls in Spanish).
Once the richest country in the world, Argentines have suffered much due to political instability and military rule. The city has a very political feel about it – not least of which is the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada (where Evita emotively sings “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from the balcony in the aforementioned musical). Veterans from the Falkland Islands War (Malvinas) are camped with banners fading in the sun demanding their due compensation, while every Thursday the Mothers of the Disappeared meet in their white headscarves to walk anti-clockwise around the fountain, hoping against hope that their children – and now their unknown grandchildren – may somehow be reunited with them, after tens of thousands of people were “disappeared” by the military dictatorship between 1976-1983.
Also bordering the square is the elaborately decorated cathedral Pope Francis used to preside over when he lived in Argentina. Just off the square you’ll find the pedestrian street of Florida with its high street shopping and crowds, and to the opposite side, Defensa Street with its quirky gypsy feel and bohemian boutiques leading down to the oldest city suburb of San Telmo. Defensa becomes a must-see market on Sundays and is filled with antiques, leather goods, clothes, jewellery and assorted curiosities.
As a tourist I felt quite safe and the only place we were told to be careful was the colourful La Boca (a no-go at night) and at the markets in Defensa Street. I would recommend a tour or guide to get the most out of the city. The people are friendly and helpful and most speak some English.
For places to stay, I’d recommend Palermo (especially Palermo Hollywood) if you want something a bit trendy with lots of restaurants to choose from, or my favourite was San Telmo – because it’s old, quirky and interesting. It’s also only a kilometre or two walk to Plaza de Mayo and the pedestrian shopping street of Florida.
A big surprise was La Recoleta Cemetary. A quiet and beautifully landscaped city of the dead, smack bang in the middle of the city of the living. Recoleta is a collection of tombs and mausoleums that house the coffins of the city’s wealthy and famous – including my favourite Argentine musical heroine, Eva Peron. Again, take a tour or hire a guide to make the most out of the experience.
We also attended the obligatory tango show. Not quite as enjoyable as I had expected, it covered the history and showed the evolution of the tango by live singers and dancers, but as it was in Spanish it got a bit lost on us. However, the live pianist, accordionist, bass player and violinist made the night special - whipping the music into a frenzy that transported you back in time.
Argentina is famous for its beef and with good reason. If you order a steak at a restaurant you’ll get half a kilo of meat on your plate. We couldn’t quite figure out the food ordering, but assume each dish you order can be split between two people or even four (except desert which seemed to be the only single serve item). Meat is the focus of every meal, and even when I ordered chicken with an aubergine lasagne, the lasagne was small and the meat portion was the equivalent of half a chicken. After a while you just stare at your plate wondering who could possibly eat all this food.
Argentines don’t have a weight problem so just go with it. Highlights were the chorizo and baked provolone cheese, and local speciality dulce de leche – a sweet, thick caramel the Argentines and Uruguayans like to put on - or in - their deserts. The Argentines have the best olive oil and delicious wines, but if you really like your vino, be sure to cross the river into Uruguay as they have the best in the world.
Being a southern hemisphere country, Argentina's seasons are the same as ours. We went in May and all the sycamore trees were shedding their leaves onto the cobbled streets. The wind blowing through the city was brisk and I ended up buying scarves and assorted woollen warmers.
Buenos Aires is a strange mix - a city whose glory days are long past yet, whose time is still to come. It would have been interesting to spend a bit longer there just to soak up the atmosphere but like most tourists we had limited time and a ferry to catch to Uruguay – a country I would highly recommend you add on to your Argentine experience. I’m looking forward to returning and seeing the rest of Argentina.