Argentina may be recovering swiftly from the economic meltdown it suffered at the turn of the century, but it remains one of the few destinations where our Rands do rather well. Ryan Cannell spent most of his money on ice cream.
The taxi ride from the airport revealed a dark and magnificent city, with tightly-knit buildings crying with a dilapidated sadness, screaming of past glory, begging to be explored and appreciated.
Immediately, I was confronted with the anarchy of the traffic system. Lines in the road seemed to have been drawn to fool tourists; most Buenos Aires locals, or ‘porteños’ as they like to be called, tend to drive half in one lane and half in another, or to make up as many lanes as cars can fit in the width of a road. In the traffic, short tempers and loud hooting prevailed, reflecting the general temperament of the Argentineans.
Attempting to chat with the taxi-driver made me realise how little English the ‘porteños’ speak, and that the ‘Basic Spanish of Spain’ I picked up at the second-hand book store failed to mention the idiosyncrasies of Argentine pronunciation that make it near incomprehensible to the untrained ear. The language sings like a hybrid of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian; it's pretty, but confusing.
This may paint a bleak picture for a tourist, but, communication issues aside and beneath their loud and aggressive exteriors Argentineans are probably the friendliest people in the world. The best thing I did was to make friends within the first few days, because they went out of their way to enhance my experience. It's almost tradition for Argentineans to invite everyone they meet over for an ‘asado’, where all gather around heavy pieces of beef cooking on a fire, while drinking Quilmes, the local beer. This typical celebration of meat bears a striking resemblance to the braai culture of South Africa, so it makes you feel right at home.
This typical celebration of meat bears a striking resemblance to the braai culture of South Africa, so it makes you feel right at home.
If it's not a thick steak, then the locals are eating pizza or pasta. The Italian influence is heavy due to a huge influx of European immigrants in the late 19th century. But besides the pizza, the best thing inherited from Italy is ‘helado’, the Argentine equivalent of gelato. Every couple of blocks there's a ‘helado’ shop, where heaven is a bowl of rich, creamy and eyes-growing-bigger-than-stomach ice-cream. My favourite flavour was ‘dulce de leche’, a sweet caramel-like substance that almost rivals meat as the national food (Argentineans have mouths full of sweet teeth).
When the sun sets, the focus shifts from dinner to dancing. Buenos Aires is the dance capital of South America. The scene is huge, with every taste catered for, from accelerated Drum 'n Bass to commercial House. Every day of the week sees nightclubs beginning to get busy at around three in the morning, and continuing until well after the new day has begun.
It's hard to understand how the economy functions with so many locals dancing until sunrise every day. Then again, there was an economic crisis in 2001 where the Argentine Peso crashed from equivalency with the US Dollar down to 4 to 1, bankrupting thousands; although admittedly the reasons given talk about government policies and not about late night clubbing. Whatever the reason, the good news for South Africans is that Buenos Aires, in one year, went from one of the most expensive cities in the world, to become one of the select few where the Rand is worth something.
The problem with the club scene is that once you get into an all-night routine, you hardly ever see the day, and there's a lot to see that requires sunlight. La Boca is the neighbourhood of the world-famous football team, Boca Juniors, and also claims to be the place of origin of Tango. Palermo is the neighbourhood of food and fashion, while San Telmo is popular for its quaint, cobbled streets and a myriad of antique shops. Recoleta is the domain of the old, wealthy upper class, where you’ll find the famous Recoleta Cemetary and high prices. There's an infinite amount to see.
A friendly warning: While I was there, I heard many a long story that started with the innocent words: "I only wanted to be here for a couple of days". Like the taste of dulce de leche, the atmosphere of Buenos Aires is sweetly addictive. One taste and you’ll be coming back for more.