27th Jul 2009 - 26th Aug 2009
Buenos Aires, Rosario (Argentina) and Uruguay
Buenos Aires could well be the most ironically named city in the world, or at least it feels that way as you arrive and the 'good air´ seems lost in translation, probably somewhere amidst one of the chaotic multi-lane motorways that dissect the city. Hype can be a dangerous thing, and we had heard so much about 'BA' that we were convinced that it would be something akin to utopia. Was it, dare I ask, disappointing upon first sight? Treading in dog shit on the way to the first hostel definitely did nothing to help...well, I suppose they do call it the 'Paris of South America'.
Our first days were spent trying to make sense of this overwhelming capital. We found refuge in the beautiful Japanese Garden, visited probably the most exclusively located necropolis going in upmarket Recoleta, where it became immediately obvious where Eva Peron's tomb was as it looked like a nursery with flowers dripping off it, not unlike parts of the M23 in Sussex. Surprisingly, for Argentina's most ubiquitous historical figure, hers was almost inferior to others whose neo-classical Greek-colomned stately tombs and domes dominated the space. I guess it´s hard to keep up the Jones's posthumously though. Palermo district had without doubt the best shops we had seen so far, but the architecture was fairly standard. Plaza de Mayo was less impressive than other main squares we had seen, although the Casa Rosada, where Evita famously delivered her speeches, was interesting enough. But something didn't feel right; something was missing.
Feeling a bit deflated, we decided to head to Rosario for a week, which was exactly what we needed to do. This place revived our spirit and was proved to be our favourite Argentine city by a long shot. Set on the banks of the Parana river, the riverside area reminded us of Brighton with locals all sitting on the lawns or in the modern bars and restaurants, many converted from old factories or fishing clubs. The sun shone, the people wore perma-smiles and they even had a cat sanctuary along the river's edge where local stray cats were fed and watered by locals. It was that kind of place. The modern art museum was in itself is a work of impressive architecture, with giant colourful cylinders, there were beaches across from the river which were surprisingly good. Perhaps the beer goggles influenced our opinion, as we found an amazing bar with white river-facing leather sofas and spent the entire day drinking lager tops - another similarity to Brighton!
Back in BA, we decided we had to change tack. Instead of looking for the instantly impressive, we sought a deeper connection to the real spirit of the place. We started visiting the traditional cafes of San Telmo, where locals cracked open monkey nuts and waxed lyrical about the fate of Bocas Juniors football team. The local Feria de Mataderos every Sunday on the outskirts of the city had street Tango displays, stalls with local specialities like 'humitas' and a proud 'welcome to Argentina' feel to it. We then visited the fascinating La Bomba de Tiempo, a huge live percussion event set in an old converted and modernised warehouse with a conductor giving hand signals to various drummers and percussionists. By the end it was like some crazy club, with a moshpit at the front and it going off with a bang... or make that several thousand bangs, very loudly executed. At that point, close to ear-drum shattering decibel levels, we realised that Buenos Aires definitely has something, you just need to know where 'it' is.
Uruguay is somewhere we hadn't been itching to visit, but we decided to check it out, with Dom reeling in anticipation at the prospect of notching up another passport stamp. We stayed in four very different places: Colonia, an atmospheric old smuggler's port; Montevideo the capital; Punta del Diablo a lazy fishing village and Punta del Este, the miami of South America. The weather over our 12 days here was frankly nuts, changing from 5oc and coat, gloves and scarves to 30oc t-shirt and shorts in 24hrs, meaning every 5mins we were ransacking our backpacks for suitable clothes, with items flying across the room like a baby's toys.
One of the first things we noticed was that we still hadn't escaped the Maté culture. For those in the dark, imagine walking into a plaza or park and everyone is clutching a big thermos flask under one arm, a mug in the other with a giant metallic straw ('bombilla') and this being passed round to everyone on the group as they take long drawn out sips, like some surreal cult that you are precluded from. At first we thought they were glue-sniffing, but we soon realised when we saw 70yr old women having a drag on the straw we were probably wrong. No, this is their equivalent of tea drinking, but the herbs (yerba) they use are very different to our PG tips, they taste like bits of cardboard or bark. Literally everyone in Argentina and Uruguay drinks it in public, usually walking the streets or sitting in park, thermos flask cradled under the arm like a newborn baby. It's quite a surreal sight.
Colonia's 17th Century Portuguese cobbled streets were so well preserved it was like going back in a time machine and we spent a few days checking out the lighthouse, old fortress, crumbling old bullring and low-rise colonial buildings that looked close to ruinous but somehow still charming, particularly at night when the wrought iron lanterns started to glow an eerie, iridescent yellow onto cars that looked like they belonged in a prototype museum. The capital Montevideo for us held little interest. We have to cut them some slack as it is a small country, but for a capital city it seemed so stagnant, it really makes you appreciate how switched on London in. So on we moved to Punta del Diablo, which is one of those rare, natural places that refuses to be hurried or altered by time. A tiny coastal village, here a few fishing boats lay nonchalantly in the sand, ocean-facing wood cabins of blue, green, orange and red shades cluster on the hillside and either side of the village wilderness beaches with no-one on them are just asking to be explored (although there were a shocking amount of dead penguins washed up, which kind of put a temporary downer on the idyllic scenery!). The pescaderias here also sold the most amazing fresh fish so ridiculously cheaply. We really enjoyed lazing here and had to peel ourselves away to our last stop, the high-rise peninsular resort of Punta del Este. Sure, it was off-season here, but in many ways this was an advantage- cheap prices, locals only and quiet beaches to relax on. At the end of every day we hotfooted to the marina to buy fresh seabass straight from the boats (under 1GBP per fish!).
As I write we are preparing for our mammoth foot-bus-boat-metro-foot journey back to Buenos Aires, where Rachel is due to fly out and meet us on Friday and we still have Tango shows, clubs and more in store. Who knows, perhaps I will be wearing a gaudy 'I LOVE B.A.' t-shirt by the time we leave...stranger and cheesier turnarounds have happened in the name of travelling!