La Casa Rosada, the official executive mansion and office of the Argentine presidency, basked in the afterglow of a late summer afternoon, while throughout the grounds of nearby Plaza de Mayo, people carried about their leisurely affairs. It was the last few days of December, and at 7:00PM, the sun has yet barely set. The day was nearing its end, and so too was my sojourn in Argentina and its capital city of Buenos Aires.
I had been in Argentina for almost a month already, but most of that time had been spent climbing a really tall mountain. I, together with two other friends, was in the country primarily for a climb expedition to Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak on the South American continent, and Buenos Aires had merely been a transitory destination. Nonetheless, I came into Buenos Aires with my head swirling with great fervour and anticipation for what this city had to offer.
The largest city of Argentina and second largest metropolitan area in Latin America (after São Paolo in Brazil), Buenos Aires was a modern urban sprawl located on the western shore of the estuary of the Río de la Plata on the south-eastern coast of South America. It was a city heavily imbued with Old World influences—a lusty and sophisticated melange of classic European elegance and postmodern chic and bravura.
Old World Charm
The city has an opulently cultural and historical flair to it, as marked by the concentration of theatres, museums and monuments spread throughout the urban landscape. I first got acquainted with the city at the downtown barrio (district) of Retiro, an expansive locality of open parks, modern buildings, and historical edifices. I first made my way to Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina, an open square at the center of which was the Torre Monumental, a clock tower built as a gift by the local British community in commemoration of the city’s 1810 revolution. It was a weekday, and to and from across the plaza passed a motley crew of people minding their own individual affairs.
A short distance from the plaza was the Estación Retiro, the city’s main railway terminus. Built by the British in the early 1900s, the station has been representative of the city’s European obsession, and in 1997 has been declared a national monument. Throughout the environs of the station, food stalls and street peddlers hawked their goods while daily commuters buzzed in and out and around the French-style station building. I had been forewarned of the trappings of this place, where many of the city’s hustlers and scam artists supposedly operate, and I was thus constantly wary of everything and everyone around me as I moved along through the crowds and stopped for some repast of milanesa (breaded meat fillet) and churros (fried-dough pastry).Fortunately, my dealings with the place have been uneventful.
Further from Estación Retiro, across Avenida del Libertador, was Plaza San Martín, a rather impressive park named after Argentina’s national hero. The plaza was once the preferred surroundings for some of Argentina’s wealthiest landowners around 1900 and was lined with the city’s most beautiful and important mansions. Though the surrounding area has since seen much of its older architecture replaced by highrises, the plaza has remained timeless as porteños (“people of the port”), the demonym for the people of Buenos Aires, pass by and spend their leisure time along the tree-lined esplanades.
During our stay in the city, my travel companions and I were fortunate to have met and been accommodated by the Philippine ambassador to Argentina himself and other members of the Philippine consulate in Buenos Aires. On our first day of touring the city, our hosts took us for lunch at Calle Florida, an elegant yet frenetic pedestrian and commercial street just a short walk from Plaza San Martín and which bustled with shoppers, vendors, and office workers flocking to the avenue’s variety of retail stores, shopping arcades, and restaurants. It was a delightful site, a modern-day street market where throughout its stretch, visitors and passers-by are met by hawkers offering tango classes, adventure tours, and dining services, while other vendors lay out on the ground their wares and merchandise of cheap apparel, household utensils, and souvenir items. By evening, the pace relaxes as street performers, including tango singers and dancers, street mimes, and comedy acts, converge into this popular haunt.
From Calle Florida, we walked further on to the financial and high-rise district of San Nicolás (more often referred to as El Centro) where one finds the Obelisco de Buenos Aires, a national historic monument and icon of the city, located in the Plaza de la República, in the intersection of avenues Corrientes and 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires’ widest street. Built to commemorate the fourth centenary of the first foundation of the city, the obelisk and its surrounding quarters have been regarded as Buenos Aires’ nightlife and entertainment retreat, much like what Times Square is to New York City.
Parisian-style influence on Buenos Aires’ urbanization is noticeable along the length of Avenida del Libertador, the city’s principal thoroughfare. From Retiro to the posh and more upmarket district of Palermo, the boulevard is lined with numerous museums, theatres, sports stadia, and many of the wealthy and famous old mansions, some of which are now used as ambassador residences.
The Palermo district itself, being the largest barrio of the city, comprised several informal subdivisions: Palermo Soho, the city’s fashion strip ostentatiously brandishing its swanky malls; Palermo Hollywood, a distinctive quarter where radio and TV stations, along with the entertainment industry denizens of movie producers and celebrities, have settled; and Las Cañitas, a cluster of city blocks crowded with trendy bars, fancy restaurants and nightclubs. It was in this district, in a classy borough of upscale condominiums and sett-paved streets, that my companions and I stayed with our hosts from the Philippine consulate, and I noted how late the nightlife in the city seem to start as people only headed out for their evening social affairs as late as midnight.
Passion and Enlightenment
I couldn’t help but take note of how imprints of culture and history are strongly pervasive throughout the city’s fibre.
One memorable place that we went to was La Boca, an intoxicatingly curious district located far at Buenos Aires’ southeast end. Known among football fans as the home of one of Argentina’s most famous football clubs, La Boca is likewise distinguished for its colourful houses and tango lore. According to our host, the neighbourhood was formerly a shabby township of European migrants who settled in at the mouth (boca) of the Río de la Matanza (“slaughter river”). For lack of resources, the townsfolk merely begged for leftover paint from the nearby districts and henceforth uplifted the town into a popular destination for artists and tourists alike. Along the Caminito, the neighbourhood’s distinguished street museum and traditional alley, are many Italian taverns offering street-side dining and entertainment. All around was the evocative feel and amorous music of tango as street dancers from nearby clubs performed and artists and artisans sold tango-related memorabilia. The whole place exuded a strong bohemian flavor, thick with color, sound and movement.
A day before I was to fly back home, I again passed by El Centro district and made my way to Plaza de Mayo, a large square which has been the site of many of the country’s great political upheavals. The plaza’s name commemorates the May Revolution of 1810 which led to Argentina’s independence from Spain, and since the foundation of Buenos Aires, the plaza has been surrounded by many of the most important political institutions of the city and of Argentina. It is the heart of the city’s and of the country’s political consciousness, and there throughout the square was an open-air photo exhibit of the city’s modern-day revolutions. I regarded the displayed photographs, peering into episodes of the city’s history when socio-political unrest and activism rang blaringly loud. The images were violent and compelling. Having fostered demagogues, idealists, dictators and revolutionists throughout the history of South America, the likes of which include Ernesto “Che” Guevarra and the pair of Juan and Evita Peron, Buenos Aires, to this day, remains politically active.
A few blocks away from Plaza de Mayo is the notable Café Tortoni, a historic coffeehouse which since its establishment has seen artists, politicians, scientists, philosophers, free-thinkers, and celebrities walk through its halls. My hosts from the consulate decided to treat me out here on my last day in the city, and I soon realized just how popular the place was as we queued up into a long line of visitors wanting to get in. I only had a small cup of coffee, which frankly I found rather underwhelming. But the character of the place itself was indeed quite memorable. Having made little concessions to the twenty-first century, the place was a veritable museum with its interiors finely appointed in wood, stained glass, yellowing marble, bronze, and rich upholstery. Acknowledged on the walls and by the preserved memorabilia displayed in the café’s backend gallery were past patrons, included among which were painter Benito Quinquela Martín, dramatists Luigi Pirandello and Federico García Lorca, and pianist Arthur Rubinstein. More recent additions to the café’s luminous list of notable guests were Albert Einstein, Robert Duvall, Spain’s King Juan Carlos I, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Soul and Sensibilities
It’s hard to put a tag on the identity of the city, given the porteños’ multi-racial origins. The majority of porteños have European roots, with Italian and Spanish descent being the most common. They are a populace of mixed temperament. For all their Latin American sociability, some porteños can be equally aloof. Throughout my visit of the city, I realized that it pays to have some conversational skills in Spanish as some porteño will not take much pain to converse with you in English. But perhaps their seemingly standoffish demeanor is not borne out of any disparagement or contempt; it is simply just a disposition common to any impersonal urban setting. To be fair, I have met local folks who genuinely took interest in me and, amidst my broken Spanish and their broken English, were more than eager to share their stories of the city with me.
The very core of the city’s character has been difficult for me to define. Buenos Aires to me was like a vamp—sultry, beautiful, alluring yet self-possessed, cool, and impassive. And the little time I spent in this city had tantalized in me a rather ambivalent fancy for its sangfroid and sophistication. Nonetheless, Buenos Aires and Argentina have been a great adventure, and every great adventure leaves an indelible mark. This city of “Fair Winds” will linger always in my memory.