Arriving into Argentina it seemed like a different continent – not just a different country. The people looked much more European than the indigenous people of Peru or Bolivia. They were much taller, whiter and their clothes were much more western compared to the Bolivians, especially the Bolivian women who wore long silky skirts, shawls and Bowler hats!
We arrived at the border from Uyuni, the ‘Salt Flats town’, on a nightbus at 4am and had to wait till 6am until the border control office opened. Our plan was to work our way from the border with Bolivia to the capital, Buenos Aires, which is halfway down this 3500km long country in 1 week while seeing as much of the smaller cities as possible.
When we got through the border check it was back on to another coach to our first main stop, Salta. The buses in Argentina were more expensive than what we were used to but they were comfortable and the 7 hour journey went pretty fast. One new custom in Argentina is to tip the baggage handler who takes the bags off the bus. The tip was only 10 pesos (€1) but it’s very confusing when the guy is shouting in Spanish for more money before giving the bags back! The backpacks, which we bought in a camping shop on Capel Street, are holding up well considering all the throwing about they’ve endured. The only mishap was the strap on my bag snapping in La Paz but I got that fixed by the local tailor for 20 Bolivianos (about €2.50) although I think he overcharged me and gave me the gringo rate!
So as we travelled through Northern Argentina, the landscape was beautiful. The bus wound its was through valleys and mountains that were lush and green and a big change from the desert of Bolivia. There were also lots of organised farms with proper fences. No more stray cows and llamas running across the road! The weather was a bit cooler but not Irish cold!!!
We stayed in a pretty basic hostel that was near the main square but it was clean and had wifi and a good breakfast so we were happy! So far most South American breakfasts have consisted of a bit of white bread with jam, instant coffee and if you’re lucky an over-ripe banana. But Argentinas do it differently. This time it was medialunas. Medialunas can be any type of pastry and we got a selection, served with real coffee, orange juice and a selection of fruit. The perfect way to start the day!
Salta is overlooked by the Cerro San Bernardo mountain and has a cable car that takes you up to the top, to Parque San Martín that overlooks the town and gives a great overview of the region. We decided to walk back down the track that wound around the mountain and were happy that we took the cable car up as we passed people huffing and puffing as they were going up.
All life seems to be centred on the main square which had loads of restaurants, a few museums and a nice art galley with some cool photography and video installations. We got used to the shouts of ‘Cambio’ from the currency exchange men who stood all around the square with wads of Pesos ready to exchange for Euro or Dollars. These guys were in high demand until recently as the government had unusually fixed the exchange rate to stop inflation that was destroying the Argentinian economy after their own crash in the early 2000’s. The Cambio men gave better rates than the banks and were called the blue market. But that’s changed now and a few months ago the government relaxed the rules. Argentina was still good value for Europeans but I’d say prices will creep up against the euro again soon.
Argentina is also famous for its ice cream, with a history of Italian emigrants bringing their secrets with them so we got a big cone each from one of the many onstreet sellers around the square for all our efforts spent walking!
We only had 2 days in Salta but it was a nice introduction to Argentina. That night we hopped on a night bus for the 12 hour journey to Córdoba. We bought tickets which were 800 pesos (€120) and by far the most we have paid on the trip. And this time we remembered to tip the baggage handler.
Our next stop was the third largest Argentinian city, Córdoba. This is a student town with numerous universities including Argentina’s oldest set up by the Jesuit Missionaries. It’s a really nice setting in a lush valley by the River.
We booked an Airbnb beforehand but when we arrived the apartment was nothing like the pictures. It was very basic and would have been OK for 1 or 2 nights but we were booked in for 5. The beds were like prison beds and there was very little furniture and kitchen facilities. We were looking forward to a decent place after all the shared bathrooms and kitchens, but this was not it.
We were met by the owner’s elderly parents who didn’t speak much English but were very nice. This must have been their first let because the father was hanging a shower curtain as we arrived. And there was no fridge. They told us that they would go and buy one and drop it in later. After getting off a nightbus this was the last thing we wanted so we contacted the owner and asked him to put us up in the original apartment or we wouldn’t be staying. He said it wasn’t available which showed that this was defiantly a scam so when the parents came back with the fridge we wrote a message to them in Google translate and legged it! The Internet in the apartment was the fastest we’ve had in South America which was hilarious and the parents were very understandable so we didn’t feel too bad, so we went to Starbucks to get wifi and look for somewhere else. We contacted Airbnb who were extremely helpful and we found somewhere in the new town and checked in at 7pm. Airbnb even gave us €75 credit so the messing around did pay off!
The new apartment overlooked a big park which had an outdoor swimming pool, stadium and even a zoo! There were lots of bars and restaurants in the area where we got to sample some of the local beers and ‘super panchos’ – Argentina take on hot dogs. The student population give great energy to the city and along with the sunny weather it’s a great place for a visit.
Córdoba has lots of grand squares and a mix of old and new churches and museums. We did a tour of the Jesuit church and college which gave great insight into the history of the region and the tensions between the church and state that led to the expulsion of the Jesuits from the country for 50 years before being let back in.
After a few days in Cordoba, it was onto the next city Rosario. We both felt a bit ill and the temperature was in the mid 40s so we didn’t do much here but there was a few good bars and restaurants and an amazing flag monument that was built to commemorate the lifting of the Argentinian flag for the first time.
A little later than expected we arrived in Buenos Aires in mid January which was the height of their summer. Buenos Aires is an amazing city with lots of history, great nightlife and an international feel. The city is very spread out with lots of districts and we were staying in Palermo which was west of the city centre but their metro system is very efficient. Palermo is one of the richer and residential districts with tree-lined streets and intersections packed with restaurants, bars and boutiques. There are several “sub neighbourhoods” such as Palermo-Viejo, Palermo-SoHo, Palermo-Hollywood so it takes some time to get to know where to spend time but we had booked an Airbnb apartment for a whole week so we had time. This was probably the longest time we had spent in one place but it was nice to have a base and not be on the move as much. January is the height of summer and the apartment was really hot but we had a fan and the windows open for the duration. The local way of life is that they go out late when it is cooler and stay out all night! Most bars don’t open till 9 and clubs at 1. We tried to keep up but failed miserably most of the time. Must be getting old!!!
There is a great vibe to the city with lots of music, laughter and conversations flowing from doorways and shops as we went past. The street we were staying on had a real community feel with houses and apartments next to the local butchers, green grocers and supermarkets. Of the two supermarkets on the Street ‘Dia’ was our favourite and even though very little English was spoken we managed to get through the checkouts with out hand signals and few phrases of Spanish. One ‘important’ issue we faced was the buying of beer in bottles. So in order to buy a bottle you had to return a bottle or pay a extra tax for purchase without a return. It’s a good system that makes sense but it’s a hard one to understand when you don’t speak the language and such a pain when you forgot your empties. I vaguely remember milk bottles being on the same system in Ireland but by the end we had vouchers for 5 empties from different shops and another 5 empty bottles lying around! The good thing was the beer was cheap and the 1 litre Quilmes and Bhrama bottles were a nice way to relax on a hot evening.
After we had explored the areas around our apartment we ventured to other districts, the first being Recoletta. Recoletta is a well off district north of the city centre and is famous for its cemetery. It is the graveyard of choice for the wealthy of Buenos Aires who try and outshine each other in death with ostentatious crypts and tombs. The Perons (and especially Evita) are world famous leaders and revered in Argentina. We visited the graveyard along with all the other tourists to have a look at their crypts and the graves of the great and good of Argentina. So much history in one place.
The Peron mausoleum was actually very understated compared to other long-gone presidents, businessmen and sportsmen who went over the top with massive sculptures and religious decorations. There are even a few Irish graves with names like O’Higgins and Coghlan. There were military links between Britain and Argentina and of course Ireland was ruled by Britain too at this time. We also saw a fair streets with Irish names as we wandered around.
San Telmo market
On Sunday we were up early and ventured in to San Telmo market where traders and food stalls share the streets with throngs of people and the squares with tango dancers. The tango dancers set up a little strip of the main square in San Telmo and use it as their dancefloor. Along with the music, we got a real authentic feel for Argentinean life.
After visiting the market we walked through the cobbled streets to the centre of BA, Plaza de Mayo. This is where all the major buildings and demonstrations in Argentina take place. Around the square is Casa Rosada, the pink house which is the seat of government, the metropolitan Cathedral which used to be the cathedral of Pope Francis before he became pope of course. There is a constant camp in the square of war veterans on the square protesting their ill-treatment and calling for the return of the Falkland island (or Islas Malvinas as they call them) back to Argentina. On the first day we visited there was also a demonstration against the former prime minister who is charged with money laundering. The main shopping street Florida runs from here where there are loads more ‘Cambio Men’ exchanging currency.
Argentina is famous for its steakhouses (or Parrilla) and we were given a tip to try the ‘best steak in town’ at Don Julio in Palermo. I was a bit sceptical but I have to say it was amazing! Don Julios is on the corner of two quiet neighbourhood streets but there are queues around the corner to get in. The exterior has burgundy awning and big windows, I presume so you can see how good a time the people inside are having, and the inside is layered out on two floor with wooden furniture and crisp white tablecloths. It’s a classy establishment. I was wearing chino shorts as I’d thrown out the two pairs of Jeans I brought as it was so hot, but they let us in anyways and stuck us upstairs at the back! We both ordered the Rib Eye Steak and a few sides and were presented with a big chunk of beef that was cooked perfectly and tasted amazing (sorry if you are salivating)! The bill came to about €70 for two which was a bit expensive and and much more than our usual backpacker dinner spends but it was worth it – a great introduction to Argentinian beef.
By Thursday of our week in Buenos Aires we were really getting to love the place and the host of the apartment gave us use of the upstairs terrace as the adjoining apartment was free for the rest of our stay. As we sat up there on a hot summers eve with our litre bottle of beer we joked that if we could just learn Spanish we would move to BA!!!
On our last night in BA we went for another steak but this time in a neighbourhood Parrilla restaurant in the cheaper La Boca area (home of Boca Juniors FC). The steak in Viejo Derby turned out to be nearly as nice as Don Julio’s but half the price. There’s probably nowhere in BA where you can get a bad steak! After the steak we got tickets to a show which was another tip of things to do in BA (thanks Christine G!). The show was called Fuereza Bruta and was a multimedia acrobatic extravaganza.
The crowd of about 500 people are shepherded into the hall that has a stage at one end and everyone is standing up. The lights go down and the craziness starts. Performers come out on the stage with drums while a guy runs on a travelator that extends from the stage. Patio tables and chairs are thrown at him while he continues to run but goes nowhere – all to the beat of the drums and dance music & strobe lights from the dj. It then all went dark and the ceiling starts to descend but it’s actually a see-through glass bottom pool which is pumped with jets of water with the performers dancing around and sliding across it. It continues to descend until the audience can touch the sheet and see the performers face to face. So far, so unexpected. When the ceiling goes back in place a massive shiny curtain wraps around the room and girls on ropes run along the walls. I swear this is what happened and no drugs were involved!
To finish off holes appear again in the ceiling curtain and performers come down on ropes and pull audience members back up with them as the band comes back on stages for one last rave off!
It was a real audiovisual experience and took a few minutes to adjust back to the real world but it was a great way to wrap up our time in BA.
Next stop is Uruguay and then into the Iguazu falls on the Argentinan / Paraguayan / Brazillian boarder.
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