Living in San Telmo Buenos Aires, Argentina

We crawled across the airport like zombies, picked up our luggage and slid into a taxi half asleep. We arrived at the hostel that Layla had stayed at earlier in the San Telmo district of the city. San Telmo is the origin and heart of Tango. All of the bars and restaurants in this part of the city have Tango dancers performing while you eat and drink the night away. To our dismay and disgruntlement we were told that there was only one hostel bed available as they had closed two of the rooms for renovations. Sarah and I couldn’t even really complain at that point. It was 5:30am and we looked gross, felt gross and were exhausted physically and emotionally. After a small debate over whether it was safe enough to walk four blocks down the road to the next closest hostel we were marching through the city in the pitch black. We quickly signed into the HI Tango Inn Hostel and were in bed fast asleep, fully clothed, at 6am.

We woke up at 1:30pm. The whole wake up story is rather funny as I suddenly woke up as if my batteries had fully charged and I whispered to Sarah bellow and told her we should probably grab breakfast having no clue what time it was at that point. We were starving as we had not had a proper meal in 24 hours so we jolted into the city streets and walked six blocks north towards the heart of the city, Plaza de Mayo. The plaza is surrounded by historical, monumental, colonial buildings including the pink Casa Rosada where Evita and Peron gave their famous speeches to thousands of onlookers. The city exudes a dichotomy of South American ingenuity and European grandeur. Sarah and I both couldn’t stop saying ¨I love it, this city is amazing, oh my Lord this place is fabulous.¨ After living in small little towns for the last week or so it was so exciting to finally arrive in a cosmopolitan city full of fashionable and beautiful people. We had been told for the last several weeks that the people of Buenos Aires were gorgeous. Unfortunately the city has one of the highest rates of anorexia in the world. The women are thin, well dressed and can be seen hanging on to the arm of their clean shaven and well dressed man. The plaza was full of pigeons and locals taking a break from their busy metropolitan life to sit by the water fountains or under a palm tree.

There is a national monument in front of the Casa Rosada which was surrounded by mourners today who were handing out pamphlets. The monument was plastered with pictures of the 200 people who had been killed in a disco fire last year. The incident stained the cities night life for some time apparently. Today just so happened to be the memorial of the event. Huge, grate, ten foot barricades lined the front of the Casa Rosada and featured several riot police mulling about. Apparently there have been several riots as of late so the cops are always on watch. You can imagine the violence that must break out when Argentineans riot. Hearing about how they act at their football matches, simply wild. We actually saw a huge armored car (that looked more like a tank from WWII) which prominently featured two huge guns that blast water at any who dare get out of hand. We passed the Catedral Metropolitana which is a beautiful Spanish church which reminded me of the architecture in southern California. We continued our tour downtown to Plaza del Congreso and Avenue Julio 9, the busiest of main streets. This street features 18 lanes of heavy cab traffic, but more importantly the cities Obelisco. A huge pointy monument that reminds me of the one located in Washington DC. Apparently on international AIDS day the city covered the Obelisco in the words largest condom. Locals have an affectionate name for the monument, it translates into something like; pointy phallus.

We made the trademark tourist no-no. Practically starving, trying to find a decent place to eat an affordable lunch we ran into a vibrant, enthusiastic man on the street coaxing us into his restaurant. He wore a black and red traditional cowboy costume and told us the food was excellent. Apparently they had everything, whatever that means. This should have been my first sign that the place was bad news, oy. We ended up ordering a plate of pasta from El Gaucho. Possibly the most fowl meal we had ever consumed in life. I ordered a glass of wine which arrived with a fly in it, lovely I know. We left that place with a bad taste in our mouth, however our spirits were lifted as we were just seconds from the cities Avenue Florida. This street is full of high end clothing stores. Along the streets performers run up to you and force you to become part of their street side drama. We saw a huge crowd watching a couple perform the Tango which was a cute sight. The street seems to be half full of locals standing handing out flyer’s and business cards, luring you into their shops. The majority of the shops here are very expensive specialty fur and leather clothing stores. Sarah and I touched a $15 000 dollar fur coat which felt like heaven but made me feel ill as I knew some cute little animal(s) once wagged their tales.

We walked into the famed Galeria Pacifico, an ornate shopping mall with beautiful fresco ceilings and interactive art displays throughout. We took several pictures of the sculptures and paintings which can be found scattered between Lacoste and Hugo Boss boutiques. The whole shopping mall clearly catered to tourists, regardless, I really enjoyed the concept…right down to the elevators which had Japanese garden scenes painted across their doors. Along Ave Florida there are four McDonald’s restaurants. We gave into the American eatery after passing by the final Golden Arches on the way back to Plaza Mayo. It was now dark, the sun had receded beyond the horizon for another twelve hours and we decided it was a perfect moment to indulge in a one dollar sundae. Walking home I was really surprised at the pedestrian traffic in the city. It was about 10pm or so and I could barely walk down the street without getting thwacked across the chest by someone quickly bustling by. We joined a crowd watching a really funky jazz band playing an up beat punk rendition of old school tunes. The highlight of the night would have to be our random political rally experience. Sarah, at first glance, thought it was a parade! We positioned ourselves right in the middle of the pulsing crowd and looked around to see what was going on. Hundreds of people stood chanting at a stage, banging on their drums, waving their red flags. An orator started screaming on a microphone over a crowd as everyone started to throw their fists in the air, singing a patriotic song they swayed in the moonlight. Sarah translated and told me the huge star lit meeting was for the new liberal party leader. They spoke of workers rights, environmental issues and removing the old conservative ideals. I got a bit freaked out when people really started getting patriotic to the extent that they started to shoot gun shots into the night sky. We peaced out just shortly after that as I envisioned some sort of dubious evening: getting stuck in a riot and hosed down by a huge tanker truck. Walking back to the hostel we both commented on the amazing energy that the Argentine people exude. This trait is inherent in all South American countries, patriotism lives! And if you don’t believe me, just watch a football match here, insanity we’ve heard.

We went downstairs to use the computers and a friend via Toronto with the help of MSN Live told me of the horrendous Rosie O’Donnell issue on The View as of late. A guy from Cordoba sitting beside Sarah started chatting to her in Spanish. I have to admit I thought he was really creepy so I let her talk to him and continued writing my email. He asked her if he could take her out for coffee and went upstairs to get his jacket. She grabbed my arm and told me I’d be joining her on this date. I rolled my eyes and thought this would be interesting. We then went upstairs to the main floor and found out that the cafe was closed. The man from Cordoba was with a group of people who were about to go out and asked us to come with them. We were in our PJ’s so we said definitely not. He then sat beside Sarah telling her his room was cold and that he wanted a little peak at our room to see if ours was warmer. I was thinking oh my Lord he is coming onto Sarah ever so heavily. He kept begging us to go out with him and we continued to neglect his offer. I went to the front desk to ask about the gay nightlife in the city and complete shock hit both Sarah and I. Apparently mister Cordoba is gay as well and was never coming onto Sarah in the first place. I tried to avoid his staring and when he went upstairs to grab a map she grabbed me laughing. She told me he said I was cute and asked what my name was. She said “Andrew” and he responded “Oh Angel is a very nice name.” Oy vey, he thinks my name is Angel! We sat down in the lounge with the guy at the front desk until 4am in the morning chatting about the history of Evita (the rich hate her, the poor love her), the military coup in the 80’s including the horrible bombings and missing persons cases. It was really interesting to hear an impassioned local talking about how bad the economy is right now. He said the average waitress makes 100 dollars a month. Average rent in the city is 300 dollars a month. Doing the math, it’s impossible to live in the city and work. Most middle class and poor people live in crammed apartments. We coaxed the front desk attendant to log onto youtube so we could watch the View Elizabeth VS Rosie match which was ever so entertaining.

The following afternoon was cloudy and reminded me of a cool fall day back home. We walked to the La Boca district which is apparently really dangerous at night but pedestrian friendly during the day. This area is where all of the Italian immigrants settled when arriving in Argentina. We sat in Park Lezanna on the steps of an amphitheater overlooking a huge Russian Orthodox Church. We both munched on candied almonds and started singing “Feed the birds, tupins a day” as hundreds of pigeons flew to our feet. We then proceeded to get lost in a massive freeway intersection which reminded me of the Don Valley Parkway. I sat on a stoop entirely lost and confused. We were directed by a volunteer Fireman to walk through what we soon realized was an incredibly sketchy area of the city. We walked down streets littered with dog shite and held hands as a commonly shared comfort.

We finally arrived at the touristy Caminito district. The area is about two square blocks and is an essential stop over for all tourists passing through BA. All of the store fronts and houses are brightly coloured with life size paper mache figures representing Tango culture, standing on balcony’s over the street. One of the balcony’s features life size mannequins of Evita, Peron and a famous Soccer player giving a gleeful thumbs up. There are several references to football throughout the area as this is the home of the famous Boca Junior Football Club. The cobble stone streets are lined with artists selling their tango inspired paintings and sculptures. On every corner one can find several scantily clad women dressed to look like Tango dancers (but they come off more as hookers) who try and seduce you into taking a picture with them. I saw one Asian man being groped by two horrifying women wearing bright pink lipstick, he got his moneys worth at least. This little district truly is magical and full of history as it was the birthplace of Tango in the 40’s. We both sat on a fountain step and entertained ourselves by watching a man wearing a pin striped jacket and holding a cigar shouting “come and get a picture with Diego.” It seems anyone in this town will dress up to make a little money behind the camera for tourists. Sarah felt compelled to ask Diego why we would want a picture with him. He was certainly not famous, perhaps that is why the display was so entertaining. We saw two huge tourist buses full of Asians pass by the main road which was our cue to leave. As we walked to the taxi station both Sarah and I laughed as we saw several of these Asian tourists wearing SARS masks.

We walked into central San Telmo just before 9pm to find a place to eat dinner: Walking along the cobble stone streets in the middle of the night in this area of the city is rather romantic as all of the colonial buildings are lit up, showcasing the sprawling potted plants growing across the balconies. We ate at Parilla Viejo Gomez, a traditional Argentinean grill house. After we sat down a sommelier came to our table to offer us a glass of wine. We were idiots and refused as we were not sure whether or not we would be forced to buy a bottle. We were given piping hot beef empanadas as we glanced over the menu. I ordered a bottle of Chardonnay from Mendoza, a beef steak, fried sweet potatoes and fried eggs. When our food arrived at the table we all rolled our eyes in disbelief. We had each ordered a portion of french fries and we realized each of these portions could feed the entire table. We painstakingly ate our meal over a three hour period. I never order steak at restaurants but I most certainly enjoyed this huge steak as it was four dollars.

We arrived back at the hostel and walked down to the bar in the basement to enjoy a liter beer before grabbing a taxi across town to the Palermo region of the city. We spent 30 pesos to enter the cities most popular disco (every Thursday night, Club 69). This place was insane: it is a dance club set up in an old opera house. As you enter there are black and white checkered tile floors and a huge chandelier above. The disco plays loud thumping bass electronica all night while a psychedelic drag show takes place on stage and around you. The central dance floor was huge and full of beautiful well dressed kids from Buenos Aires. The place smelled to high heaven of cigarettes and marijuana. All of the dancers were dressed up in crazy futuristic costumes with a Dick Tracey central theme. Female dancers were scantily clad with bright yellow wigs and thick black elevator shoes. An amazing performance by six break dancers really had the room going crazy. Their bodies flew across the stage as if they were as light as paper. The club got really busy just after 3am which is such a wild concept for us as that is when everyone leaves the bar back at home. The top Mezzanine floor was an exclusive VIP section overlooking the dance floor bellow. Directly over the packed crowd hung a huge disco ball which spun its glitzy light across the wall and floor bellow. At 5am the music got even louder and a massive amount of confetti fell to the ground all around us. I jumped up and tried to snatch a few. I felt as though it was snowing as my head and shoulders were covered in white strips of paper. We decided to peace out just after half past five. Our taxi scooted us down the massive central boulevard, arriving back at our hostel at 6am for a sound sleep.

We woke up just before 1pm and headed downstairs to check out the weather outside. Today was the nicest day we have had on our trip thus far! The city took on an entirely different feel as the streets were full of afternoon sunlight and a warm breeze. We called a taxi and ended up being driven around town by the most idiotic cabby in the city. He didn´t even know where the National Art Gallery was! Total incompetence. After spending an entire afternoon in Recoletta we have declared it our favorite spot in the city thus far. Home to the Design Museum, Museo Nacional Belle Arts and several very well kept public parks featuring magnificent outdoor sculpture gardens. We had heard about the paseaperros (professional dog walkers) and were in shock when we saw one of them walking across the street in front of our taxi. The man literally had about 40 to 50 dogs walking in a crowd of wagging tales. We couldn´t help but wonder what these dog walkers do if one of the dogs starts to act up and jolts in one direction. Only in the wealthy Recoletta district can you find professional dog walkers brave enough to hold onto a web of leashes with a dynamite assortment of Poodles and Pitt Bulls!

We arrived at the National Gallery and spent a glorious two hours walking through the two floor building. The Gallery went above and beyond any expectations I had. The bottom floor was dedicated to the countries European art collection featuring extensive: Rodin, Chegal, Modigliani, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Corot, Lautrec, Gauguin, Courbet, Van Gogh, Sisley, Velazquez, Goya, Tiepolo, Guardi, Brughel, Cuyp, Ruebens, El Greco and Rembrandt. I discovered a new favorite artist as well. A Spaniard from Valencia by the name of Joaquin Sorolla who paints beautifully detailed oils with themes concentrating on sail boat ocean side vistas. The top floor of the gallery featured a wild assortment of South American artists. I recognized a famous painting by Eduardo Sivori called Le Lever de la Bonne. The painting features a naked woman sitting on the side of her bed getting ready to wake up and start her day. There were several school groups walking around with tour guides so it was interesting to see which paintings they stopped in front of as these were clearly the ones with the most cultural and historical significance. Local artist Gregorio Lopez Naguil´s painting La China also caught my eye as he used an incredible range of colour and the subject matter of an Argentine woman lying outside of a busy street in China intrigued me. I told Sarah several times how happy I was to be walking through a fine art gallery again. I felt so relaxed and visually stimulated by room after room of art feasts. My favorite section of the gallery was the modern works by local artists of Buenos Aires. Crazy modern wack job paintings that really made you think (or turn your head up side down in some instances to truly figure out what was being depicted on the canvas above).

We left the gallery and walked through the beautifully sunny Recoletta Park featuring the strange looking Ombu tree (giant trees with massive sprawling root systems). There is a central market square here with a great many artisans selling leather bound precious stones necklaces, glass blown jewelry, mate glasses and woolen products. Sarah and I continue to hold back on the market purchases as we have been told Boliva has the same stuff for much cheaper. I plan on purchasing ten or so rings and necklaces which I intend on wearing on my person at the same time, simply to look outrageous and over the top. We passed by the cities oldest church, Claustios del Pilar which was conducting a service at the time so we sat down on the back pews and relaxed a bit while listening to the congregation sing.

We reached our final destination, the incredible, awe inspiring and slightly creepy Recoletta Cemetery. The cemetery reminded me of films I have seen about New Orleans where the dead are buried in elaborate little houses above ground. We walked under the main arched entrance and directly in front of us was an elaborate tree lined walk way that crosses half way through the cemetery. As soon as we arrived we were taken aback by the grandeur of the sculptures and cemetery buildings. You can get lost incredibly easy as the layout is somewhat of a maze. You could spend hours here (the cemetery takes up several blocks of the city, for lack of a better word lets just say its huge). There are stray cats all over the cemetery. They walk in and out of the little path ways between sculptures of Christ, angels and crucifixes. I wondered if the cats were there for a spiritual reason, perhaps they symbolized hospitality in the afterlife or a form of protection. Sarah and I took hundreds of pictures as the architecture varied greatly from one cemetery building to the next. Some of them were incredibly old and dilapidated whereas other were clearly under ten years old, taking on the appearance of Barcelona´s Gaudi. I squirmed a bit when we walked down one little narrow pathway as the glass of the doorways had broken. The smell of ancient remains is rather acrid. Everyone comes to the cemetery to see the famed Eva Peron aka Evita´s grave. We thought it would be easy to find but had to ask a creepy little white haired man how to find it. Instead of just pointing us in the right direction he hobbled across the cemetery, weaving us in and out narrow pathways constantly crossing his fingers as he indicated all of the crosses surrounding us above. He stopped us at a few famous monuments before we reached Evita´s grave. Several of the cemetery buildings were designed by famed Italians sculptors and architects. The gilding on some of the doors was truly remarkable. Some of the buildings feature a slew of plaques as they are a funerary for the entire family, therefore housing as many as ten or fifteen individual coffins. We finally reached the Famila Duarte burial where Eva is buried. The gilded front door was decorated with freshly cut red roses and prayers that had been taped to the buildings main wall. A lady beside me started to cry and held her scarf up to her face as she prayed in front of Santa Evita´s resting place. We walked to an open area of the cemetery grounds where a huge table like stone bench was located. I sat down, plugged my i-pod into my face and listened to Don´t Cry For Me Argentina as I stared out into the red sunset filled sky. The Recolleta Cemetary is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. A must see stop in Buenos Aires, you can easily get lost amongst some of the most beautiful architecture (and most famous dead people) for hours and hours.

As the sky started to darken we walked into the heart of the upscale Recolleta district. Our heart skipped a beat as we strolled by several really high end restaurants, bistros and cafes. We found a spot that advertised VISA so we sat down at Business Cocina and Sushi Bar. An odd name as they serve no sushi and I have no clue why the word business is even present in the name. The interior looks like an American diner filled with pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and a disco ball in the shape of a camel overhead. Our benches were bright red with gilded marbles decorating the top of our headboards. We ordered a hamburger with double cheese, tomato, bacon, fried onions, lettuce and cucumber and a Caesar salad. We had a go at the milkshake concept which isn´t made with ice cream but enjoys an interesting assortment of milk and fresh fruit. Our peach, orange and strawberry shake selection was brilliant. We bobbed our heads to the Telepopmusik beats overhead and waited for our food to arrive. Our salad was a huge Debby Downer; the dressing tasted like smelly fish mayonnaise. It was worse than disgusting. Our server was a huge ass and took thirty minutes to give us our bill. He then told us the VISA machine wasn´t working, oy. He then asked Sarah in Spanish if we wanted a ¨beer on the house.¨ We looked at him skeptically and ended up saying yes. Then we immediately thought oh my goodness what if he just tried to up our bill by saying ¨would you like a glass of our house beer,¨ with no intention of giving us the bevy for free. We now hated the guy and had steam running out our ears faster than a steam engine. We were irritated by the salad and beer debacle so we gave our server no tip and hopped out the front door in search of a taxi. We napped at the hostel for an hour or so then had our friend downstairs call the best restaurant in the city for dinner reservations. We were going to end this day off with a perfect meal regardless of our previous faux lunch experience.

We walked a short three blocks to Restaurant 647. We actually passed it initially as it is almost invisible to the common pedestrian. The restaurant is located behind two red VIP barriers in what looks like a garage or storage facility. We were dressed in somewhat grungy backpackers cloths and the bouncer of the restaurant was not about to let us in. Then we told him we actually had reservations and he switched his frown to an accommodating smile rather quickly. We pulled open the 647 golden door nob and entered another world. As we walked in our jaws crashed to the floor; the most beautiful restaurant I have ever been to in my life. The place was huge, with the most gorgeous waitresses wearing a cute little black Gucci dresses and sharp stilettos. Flanking each side of the main hallway was a long bar with neon lit bottles reaching towards the ceiling. To the left Channel and Gucci loving couples crooned over their martinis and tapas in circular leather benches. I immediately felt incredibly ugly and inadequate wearing my hoody and backpack. I felt the need to kind of chirp out to everyone who was gawking at me that I had nice cloths at home and I was actually a hipster kid. Ten or so waitresses lined the hall and nodded ¨ola¨ as we walked to the back of the restaurant and sat at a four top looking over a huge lounge bellow full of plush throw pillows lazing on green bed spreads. We were given our alligator skin menus and gawked immediately. Our server was incredibly cute, I sort of wanted to date her and take her home and play cards with her. She was born and raised in Annecy France and had perfectly straight blond mullet hair. We had a beautiful bouquet of fresh white lilies on our table and small tea candles over white and black polished rocks. The colours of the restaurant were really wild; red and black menus, table cloths and chandeliers with spectacular green and dark blue wall lamps. The place had a great little mood and atmosphere. Sarah and I both choose the exact same items on the menu (after I informed her that Goat Sweetbreads was not sweet bread with goat cheese but actually fried goat brains).

The following meal was spectacularly displayed with colourful reductions, paints and edible flowers; Tarte tatin of persimmon and mozzarella cheese with fennel and grapefruit salad. Followed by a plate of heaven sent duck breast on pears and pistachio blood sausage strudel, battered warm Camembert and blueberry sauce.

We finished off the meal by sharing a selection plate of all of the house desserts:

1) Dulce de Leche Cheesecake, vol au vent chocolate cream, pistachio and nut foamy sauce.
2) Tropical fruit soup, passion fruit syrup, lime sorbet.
3) Coconut flan with raspberry coulis and brandy syrup.
4) Warm chocolate sponge cake, red fruits soup and tangerine ice.
5) Smoked earl grey tea creme brulee with lemon madeline.
6) Strawberries marinated on lime, ginger and vanilla with almond streusel, milk foam and flower honey.

The restaurants service was impeccable. Our beverages were placed on the corner of the table directly facing us as we ate. Consistently asked if we were enjoying our meal and always a bit of bevy in our glasses. I believe this was the most fantastical restaurant I have ever been to in life. Supermodel servers always add a nice little touch to the experience. We pranced back to our hostel with the pleasant feeling of satiation passing through our bodies.

We quickly threw ourselves together and walked to Palacio Alsina an incredible gay bar a few blocks down the road. We arrived at 2am and the place was dead. By 3am the place was packed full of thumping dancers sporting aviators which reflected the strobe lights above. The club is huge. It used to be an old apartment complex. Colonial architecture, four floors high, five mega disco balls and comfy couches flanking each side of the long bowling alley dance floor. Sarah and I enjoyed dancing on the dance floor amongst local funk artists. The floors were rather outrageous as they actually had lights under them so when you stood on each tile it lit up with blue, green, white or red light. I stood in the middle of a sea of dancing fanatics and reveled in the nightlife of BA once more. These people never sleep, are crazy, and I think I am falling in love. We peaced out just after 4am and strolled back to our hostel in enough time to get six hours of sleep as we had to wake up at 10am to check out the following morning.



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