Since Buenos Aires (BA) is the hub for flying anywhere in Argentina, and for virtually all flights into and out of the country, we were “forced” to return to our favorite city in Latin America..or else it used to be. But you have to read the entire blog to see why we may have changed our minds and now urge caution.
With a few days to explore, we went on two walking tours and in our spare time, walked a few of our favorite neighborhoods. Both the excellent tours combined significant doses of history, politics, economics and Argentina’s very heterogeneous culture with a discussion of the city’s diverse architectural styles.
This tour focused primarily on the section of the city between Congreso Nacionale (the national legislature) and the Presidential Palace, better known as the Pink House). We learned that the city of 13 million persons (the third largest in Latin America after Sao Paulo and Mexico City) is almost totally a city of immigrants. While countries such as Peru, and to a lesser extent Bolivia, had large indigenous populations and civilizations, Argentina did not. It had relatively few people and those that did live here were primarily nomadic. Its population, therefore, came almost exclusively from immigrants—first, and quite logically, Spanish (which colonized the country), followed by Southern Italians, then Eastern European Jews (making it now the third-largest Jewish community in the world, after Israel and New York City), Germans, Swiss and those from Middle Eastern Countries. BA was, in fact, the second most popular destination for European emigrants in the 19th and 20th-centuries, with a total of 7 million people.
As for the Congress, the building, while begun in 1906, was not completed until 1946. Our female guide talked about one of the most important pieces of legislation that was ever passed (Evita’s Law, which gave women the right to vote and to hold political office) and of the dark days between 1976 and 1982 when the military dictatorship suspended the architecture and under whose reign more than 30,000 people disappeared.
We walked down Avenue Mayor the road that connects the legislature with the Presidential Palace, learned the history of some of the more interesting buildings, such as Palacio Barolo, which was built by two Italian brothers who had such a passion for Dante that they dedicated its three towers to heaven, hell and purgatory. We also discovered how the Avenue has become the primary route for the roughly 230 protest marches and strikes (God-given Argentinean rights) that frequently occur in the city. During the multiple traffic light cycles required to cross multiple lanes of Avenue 9 de Julio (the second widest avenue in the world, after one in Brazilia), we had time to briefly learn of the cultural importance of the Obilisco (the symbol of the unified country) and the ugly (widely disliked) mural of Evita that graces the front of a tower. We passed other landmarks including a sculpture that was intended to represent the magnificent Iqasu Falls and Café Tortoni coffee house that was a popular literary meeting place during Argentina’s Golden Years, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, came the National Cathedral, the former Cabildo (city Hall) and one of the many of the city’s monument to Jose San Martin, the father of the country.
We were welcomed to the Pink House by two protests: One protesting the failure of wages to keep up with inflation and another that has been ongoing since the Falklands War by veterans who were refused pensions since they did not actually fight in the war. And speaking of ongoing protests, we missed the regular Thursday march in which groups of three woman, followed by a single group of two women, who have been marching around the San Martin monument every Thursday since the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. The protest, originally staged to protest the disappearance of thousands of children during the military action, has since evolved into a movement to recover, or at least identify, those children who have grown up without every knowing their birth parents (a movement which has resulted in offerings of free DNA tests and the recovery of 119 of the children). Why processions of three and two? This refers back to the junta law that banned all public gatherings of three or more people.
Before reaching the inner fence surrounding the palace, we were confronted by another outer fence inside of which protesters are not allowed. This fence, as we learned, was erected after a 2001 protest to the economic conditions of the 2001 depression—a protest that forced the president to evacuate the palace grounds by helicopter and led to a period in which the country had five different presidents within a period of ten days (more about this depression in our Recoleta Tour post).
We learned the history of the building (which was created by the joining of two government buildings), how it serves as the office, but not the home, of the president, and the use of the main balcony to host national events such as Evita Peron’s speeches, a Madonna concert, and Argentina’s winning of the football (soccer to us) World Cup. And then there are the different stories of why the building was painted pink. Was it due to a compromise between the country’s two leading political parties (one whose color is red and the other white) or because a combination of cow blood and fat was the combination that would best hold up to the weather? Whatever the reason, the building is certainly distinctive.
The tour then took us to the foot of Florida Street, the city’s main commercial drag, where the tour ended with an explanation of the city’s own Italian-derived non-spoken language—and the ability to carry out entire conversations solely by “speaking” with the use of one’s hands.
This tour began in the plaza outside the huge, beautiful Colon Teatro (which we toured on our previous trip). But before discussing the theater—another of BA’s “largest in the world”, our guide provided a bit of country’s and the city’s history. He emphasized that Argentina, was, at least in Spanish eyes, the poorest of the European power’s Latin American colonies. It did not have Peru’s gold or Boliva’s or Mexico’s silver. All it had was millions of acres of grass-covered pampas. Nor did it have these other colony’s indigenous populations of established civilizations and cultures. It only had a relative handful of farmers and nomads. It did, however, have a number of river ports that the Spanish could use to transport their booty of gold and silver back to the mother country.
Even with these ports, BA was little more than a village through the first 300 years of the Spanish occupation. By then, it the country began to attract the attentions of Spanish landowners, farmers and ranchers who hoped to exploit the country’s two big, underutilized natural resource—its ports and its pampas—to develop a huge agricultural and ranching economy that could ship the fruits of its bounty throughout the region. This led to the country’s Golden Age, roughly 1880 through 1930, when it accounted for 60 percent of the entire South American GDP and became one of the richest countries in the world.
This prosperity led to the creation of a landed aristocracy, a group of gentleman farmers and ranchers consumed with a mission of displaying this wealth and developing the type of cultural amenities suitable to their new status.
While the city’s working class occupied the southern reaches of the city (including Baco and San Telmo), the aristocrats moved to the north (initially Centro and Recoleta), building huge—5,000- to 10,000-sq meter palaces. By the end of the Golden Age, the city was home to more than 150 private palaces of at least 400 sq meters!
And, since they wanted their city, as well as their homes to reflect their affluence, they built similarly grand and luxurious public buildings including government offices, museums and most importantly of all, the opera—which is still the second-largest largest in the word (after Sydney). And, since they wanted to demonstrate that they were at least on par with the European aristocracy, they borrowed European styles. A Greek neo-classic temple here, a Second Empire palace there and a neo-Gothic next door. And since Paris was the city that epitomized culture, French architectural and civil styles were especially popular, they even modeled their primary though fare—Avenue 18 de Julio—after the Champs d ’Elyse.
Unfortunately, the bubble burst during the 1929 Global Depression. Most of the mansions were abandoned or torn down over the next decade. Most of those that remain have either been converted into government buildings, turned into museums or bought by luxury hotels or foreign governments (for use as embassies). We passed and got brief histories of some of the most lavish of these buildings throughout the tour.
Though the tour, the guide used particular locations to weave other historical themes into the story. For example,
- One of the city’s many San Martin monuments led to the history of how Spain’s Latin American colonies used Spain’s 1809 focus on defending itself against Napoleon’s invasion to mobilize their revolutions, leading to the independence (and in many cases civil wars) of Spain’s Latin American colonies over the next decade.
- A stop by one of the city’ largest banks launched a discussion about the country’s periodic bouts of fiscal irresponsibility and hyperinflation. The government, for example, responded to the 1989 fiscal crisis by forcing local companies and individuals with savings in dollars to convert each dollar for a newly issued peso at par (the currency has since fallen by more than 75 percent relative to the dollar); the crisis of 2001 (by which time half the population had incomes below the poverty line) led to restrictions on the number of pesos a family could withdraw each day, month and year; how 2001 crash and subsequent return of prosperity led to another populist government and a 40+-percent inflation rate that spurred the creation of currency controls, different exchange rates for different uses of money and led to a black market for currency and, under a new president, a recent 30 percent devaluation.
- This led to a discussion of Argentina’s susceptibility to populist governments, two separate husband/wife presidential successions, the cult of personality that developed around the Perons (especially Evita) and how the Kirchner’s (especially Cristina) tried to develop a similar cult-like following around herself.
We finished the tour by with interlocking stories of two wealthy families and the stories and how the matriarchs’ of these families created two notable, but very different buildings in the shadow of each other: one that drove and financed the building of the Basilica of the Holy Sacrament and was designated by the Pope as “Countess of the Church”; and the other bucked the city’s historical commitment to classical architecture by creating the 1935, Art Deco Cavanaugh building.
Then to the 1982 War Memorial to the victims of the Falklands War and how the then military dictator tried to divert the country’s focus on repression, torture and the poor economy by spurring nationalist fervor over the British control of the Falkland Islands and, even after gaining no support, launching an invasion. Contrary to his calculation, Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher didn’t blink. Facing pressure to show her own resolve, she responded, leading to a humiliating loss for Argentina’s dictator. The tour ended at Recoleta’s most famous site: the cemetery that serves as the eternal home for and site of the lasting monuments to the city’s rich and powerful—and in a cemetery dominated by grand artistic monuments, the most popular of all—the comparatively plain tomb of Evita.
Although we certainly enjoy the opportunity to explore and to learn about cities and neighborhoods though guided walking tours, we also love to explore new and to revisit favorite neighborhoods through our own walks—both structured walks to specific sights and attractions and unstructured wanders that allow us to sense the gestalt of interesting areas. We used our leisure hours to re-explore a few of our favorite BA neighborhoods. These included:
San Telmo, which is sometimes likened to Greenwich Village of the 1960s—a once run down area that was home to artists and other bohemians, but has since begun to gentrify. The neighborhood which, features a number of non- or semi-restored neo-classical buildings, is practically a wall-to-wall showcase of street art—some of which is provocative and quite good, and some of which is little more than graffiti. It is also home to a number of edgy shops and far more than its fair share of antique stores that range from upscale to collections of flea market-type goods. We particularly enjoyed an “antique mall” in which each dealer rents a caged space to display and sell their wares. While many have to traditional mix of crystal chandeliers, pressed glass, porcelains, painting and so forth, some are quite unique. One, for example, is dedicated to military uniforms, with a particularly large collection of hats, along with a handful of helmets: Another has an intriguing collection of beautifully restored antique precision instruments, such as microscopes, sextants and much, much more.
Palermo Soho, a hot, upscale millennial neighborhood that is centered around a public square that has a nice children’s playground and hosts different types of neighborhood events (such as marketplaces). It is surrounded by busy bars and casual restaurants (most with sidewalk or rooftop seating). Surrounding streets are home to a number of upscale, edgy boutiques, colorful building and of course, loads of murals and street art. (We did not revisit the more subdued next-door neighborhood of Palermo Hollywood which, as the name suggests, is home to many upscale urban families.)
Las Bocas, a former Italian seafaring neighborhood whose brightly colored corrugated iron-clad homes and street art were inspired by a local, early 20th-century artist. The cobblestone streets (especially Caminito Alley), commercial blocks and the Calle Necochea nightclubs continue to be a feast for the eyes.
Unfortunately, it is also dangerous. For the first time in our entire travel history, we experienced a crime above the level of simple pickpocketing (and that was during a Rio Carnival rush in which we carried only small amounts in our pockets). This time, two young guys hit us in tandem. One targeted Joyce’s purse (which she had for some unexplained reason, emptied of valuables by putting her cell and wallet in her pants pocket). The other targeted Tom’s camera which was held tightly in his grasp and right next to his body. Joyce’s purse got ripped from her body. We fought for the camera, which he eventually got by ripping it from the band that was wrapped around Tom’s wrist. And all of this while a number of men were watching. The camera thief disappeared. But then, to add insult to injury, the one that took Joyce’s purse, having found nothing of value, offered to return it! Ripped and of no more value, but back in Joyce’s control. This is a long way of saying two things:
- First, if you go to La Boca, but be very, very, very careful and do not..repeat, do not….wander off the main tourist street
- Second, you have to go to our older blog to see pictures of La Boca.
Puerto Madero, a former working waterfront canal that has been resurrected as a pretty pedestrian walk lined with a long row of renovated warehouses that now house office and upscale restaurants.