Buenos Aires is a bit like a European city marooned in South America, except with tango and a Jesus theme park.
It’s become a cliché to call Buenos Aires the ‘Paris of the south’, but the city has an undeniably European feel. However, look past the Art Nouveau architecture and the café culture and you’ll find a throbbing Latin underbelly fired by football and all-night tango sessions.
It’s also a country with a troubled but fascinating history, and where better to investigate the ghosts of the past than the startlingly ornate graves of Recoleta Cemetery, final resting place of the celebrated Eva Perón. But on the outskirts of town, there’s a rather more famous personage who rises from the grave every hour…
1. Tango all night
Buenos Aires is the birthplace of tango, a smouldering dance that originated in the 1890s and went on to sweep the world. Between the late 1950s and early 1980s tango went into decline as a series of military governments clamped down on public gatherings. But since 1983 tango has come back with a vengeance, and you’ll see signs of it everywhere, from street entertainers dancing for money in traditional costume, complete with rose gripped between teeth, to lavish tango shows that include dinner followed by a series of sizzling performances (the Bar Sur and La Ventana shows are two of the best).
But why just watch when you can join in? If you’re familiar with the tango basics already, then head to one of the many milongas (tango nights), which take place every night of the week and go on until the (very) small hours of the morning (Salon Canning/Parakultural is a good one). If you’re a complete beginner, however, you’ll be welcomed at one of the various tango schools (like DNI), which often provide a tourist package that will teach you the tango basics followed by a meal and a visit to a milonga.
2. Explore La Boca
La Boca is an odd tourist destination in many ways. On the one hand its central street, El Caminito, is a riot of colourful houses and is stuffed with people dancing tango for tourists and restaurants full of gringos (El Obrero on Agustin R. Caffarena 64 is a good one with an authentic feel). But on the other hand it’s a fiercely working class area in a shipyard with a reputation for being dangerous after dark, and away from El Caminito it gets gritty pretty quickly.
The artist Quinquela Martín led the revival of the area in the 1950s. After the rail line running through the district shut down in 1954, threatening the decline of the area, he encouraged residents to paint their houses in bright colours, and soon La Boca became a hotspot for open-air theatre. The district is also famous for La Bombonera, the stadium that’s the home of the Boca Juniors football team, former players for which include greats like Carlos Tevez and Diego Maradona (you might see one or two Maradona impersonators wandering around). You can see the pitch as part of a tour around the club’s museum, but it’s generally not that interesting unless you’re REALLY into your football – although you _can _buy a Boca Juniors bikini from the gift shop if you like. Makes a change from the usual replica shirts.
3. Eat enormous quantities of meat
Argentina is famous for its beef – the flat, grassy plains (the Pampas) are home to enormous herds of cattle, as well as the famed gauchos (cowboys). As such, Argentine cuisine is heavily focused on meat, and you’ll find plenty of restaurants offering asado (a sort of barbecue technique that’s also the name of a social gathering). Traditionally the animal’s carcass is splayed over a rack and then cooked over a charcoal fire pit, and along with steaks and ribs you might be served spicy sausages, and black pudding. As you’ve probably guessed already, BA isn’t particularly great for vegetarians…but if you’re a dyed in the wool carnivore, try going to Don Julio or La Brigada.
4. Visit an English village. No, wait…
If Buenos Aires is reminiscent of Paris, then Tigre (which is about 28 kilometres north and easily reached by bus or train) is reminiscent of an English village on the Thames, or perhaps the Norfolk Broads. There’s even a red telephone box – it’s quite uncanny.
Having said that, some of the buildings, such as the elaborate Tigre Club, date from the Belle Epoque and instead recall Paris’s golden age. The town is situated on the Parana Delta, and you can jump on a passenger boat to explore the river, which is studded with elegant mansions along its banks. The town is gaining increasing popularity as an upmarket tourist destination – Madonna has been said to holiday there – and there increasing numbers of fancy spas and restaurants.
5. Hop over the river to Uruguay
Uruguay is just a short ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata, and it makes an ideal day trip from Buenos Aires. The ferry drops you off at Colonia del Sacramento, which is one of the oldest towns in Uruguay (it was founded in 1860). The historic quarter with its cobbled streets has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and pottering around the Plaza Mayor and the Portuguese Museum makes for a pleasant afternoon. But for something a bit different, head out of town to the abandoned bullring. This crumbling structure was originally built in the early 1900s but closed down just two years after being built when the government of Uruguay banned bullfighting. Since then it’s been left to rot, and there’s something undeniably eerie about the skeletal remains.
6. Eyeball the Casa Rosada
The Casa Rosada (the Pink House) is the office of the Argentinian president, and various premiers have given dramatic speeches from its famous balcony, most notably Eva Perón, who was the subject of the film Evita. The inside houses a museum featuring a history of the building and the various presidents that have worked there, and free tours take place every hour. The building has certainly seen a bit of action – it was strafed by aircraft during the 1955 Revolución Libertadora, and you can still see the bullet holes on the next-door Ministerio de Economía.
7. Visit the city of the dead
La Recoleta Cemetery is probably the grandest graveyard in the world. The grave markers, tombs and mausoleums are often the size of small houses, with each resident trying to outdo the next in morbid grandeur. Various presidents and Argentinian luminaries are buried here (get the useful PDF guide), but most people make a beeline for the grave of Eva Perón, which is actually remarkably modest compared with some of the enormous, ornate tombs around it.
8. Tour Tierra Santa
This is an odd one. Tierra Santa (Holy Land) claims to be the world’s first religious theme park and represents 36 episodes in the life of Jesus – although the only ‘ride’ per se is the ‘Rotating Ark of Joseph’. A 12-metre-high mechanical Jesus is resurrected every hour, and the Last Supper features animatronic apostles. Depending on your sensibilities, it’s either a moving tribute to the life of the saviour or the most kitsch day out you’ll ever have in your entire life.
9. Eat a medialuna at Café Tortoni
Café culture is very much a part of life in Buenos Aires, and Café Tortoni is the granddaddy of them all. It’s been serving since 1858, making it the oldest café in BA, and its grand, marble-floored interior is the perfect place to indulge in a medialuna (Argentine croissant) and a cortado (an espresso with a little milk).
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