The Ugly Underbelly of Buenos Aires – A Great City or Not?

Buenos Aires is the tango hub of Argentina. Walking through the city it isn’t hard to miss tango performers along every street, and in the numerous clubs, hosting tango throughout the city. Learning to tango or watching tango exhibitions are very popular for tourists visiting the capital. However, tango was not high up on my agenda as I was mainly in the city to see Club Atlético Boca Juniors – the Boca Juniors soccer team. Buenos Aires is also the number one fashion capital in South America and it contains many historical sites. I was looking forward to my visit to the capital. I love cities, however after my visit I don’t think I would rush back there.

Many tourists walk through the area of La Boca where the Boca Juniors’ stadium, La Bombonera, is located, as well as other tourist sights. At first glance, I thought La Boca looked like a great place, full of colourful buildings and streets bustling with buskers and people selling handicraft. I couldn’t help but take a few pictures of the multi-coloured houses made of wood and steel. All the tourists here were taking pictures of these vibrant houses. On my walk to the stadium, I got to see the real La Boca that tourists miss. The main thoroughfare of La Boca is essentially a romanticised and glorified shanty town. Behind these tourist areas, you see the underbelly of Buenos Aires. Shanty houses are located in dark alleyways, street corners and under bridges that are also made of wood and corrugated sheet metal. The difference here is the ‘houses’ are dilapidated, not painted in rich colours to make them look attractive, and are made of rusted sheet metal that look like they will crumble any minute. It left me sad to see tourists being fooled by thinking this is a great place but it is an area of some of the poorest people. Such shacks are found all around the city. I sensed an unnerving atmosphere whenever I was walking around this city. I only enjoyed the capital when I was inside the excellent cathedrals and relishing on delicious beef in restaurants. Seeing a local soccer team play in Buenos Aires is the best highlight of the city in my opinion. It is something I would highly recommend for the incredible buzzing atmosphere and seeing some of the highly skilled players. From the distaste on the streets, I would have preferred to get a taxi straight to the stadium to see my favourite soccer team play than walk through La Boca.

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Most great cities around the world have a spire. Buenos Aires has one called the Obelisco. I am undecided if I would consider Buenos Aires a great city. There is much to see and do in Argentina’s capital, however I believe the best thing about Argentina is their cuisine and seeing the diverse and raw natural areas that this vast country has to offer, such as Iguazú Falls, the region of Patagonia and the Mendoza province that has the highest mountain of both North and South America called Aconcagua.

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Off the Beaten Track in Argentina

Argentina is a vast country but surprisingly easy to get around. The two best ways of traveling around this country are by plane and bus. I would recommend the latter for comfort, price and a way of seeing the countryside. The bus service in Argentina is exceptional. They are easily the best buses I have ever been on. Long distance buses are luxurious, with many having seats the size of first-class airline seats, offering free drinks and snacks. Also, the majority of long distance buses run during the night, which is ideal for a backpacker, like me, to save money on accommodation.

I based myself in Mina Clavero, a small Argentinian town in the Córdoba region, for a few days before setting off to distant places. Mina Clavero would not be high on a traveller’s itinerary for Argentina, however if you are looking for somewhere near a big city but slightly off the beaten track – Mina Clavero is the place to be. It is an hour drive from Córdoba airport and it is linked to Buenos Aires by bus. Mina Clavero may be a very relaxed and laid back town but there is a lot to do. The area in and around Mina Clavero is popular for Argentinian tourists to take time to unwind and enjoy the beautiful lakes and rivers where you can swim, cliff-dive, abseil or just simply enjoy the sun.

ImageMina Clavero is known for breath-taking landscapes and mountain ranges that are popular for trekkers, cyclists and road trippers. Although my friend Max and I are fond of cycling and trekking we decided to do a road trip around the western province of Córdoba. On the road a few kilometres outside of Mina Clavero, Max said ‘look over there’ pointing to mountains in the distance, ‘remember you were asking about the original settlers of Argentina? That over there is a place called Nono, which means ‘breasts’ in the old Indian language!’ I can see why it was called breasts because the landscape is entirely empty other than these two perky mountain peaks, which point up in the landscape that do indeed look like breasts!

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When you are driving by Nono, it is worth stopping at the Museo Rocsen that is located just outside the village of Nono. It is one of the strangest museums I have been to, as it contains the most random pieces of what they call ‘art’! Outside of the museum there are a line of numerous statues of diverse famous historical figures such as Socrates, the Buddha, Descartes, Mother Theresa and Bach! Inside, the museum is almost like a junkyard representing centuries of important pieces of technology as well as natural objects such as fossils. The museum is essentially a walk through history. My favourite part of this museum was the outside of it with the numerous statues demonstrating the people from the early days to the present times who had a major impact on humanity.

After our visit to Museo Rocsen, we drove towards Emblase Allende where La Viña Dam is located. La Viña Dam is a hydro-electric plant. Max said it used to be one of the largest hydro-electric plants in South America. I am not surprised because it is huge. On a plaque at the pedestrian entrance over the HEP plant displays the names of those involved in the engineering and construction of this dam. I noticed the names ‘Fitzsimon’ and ‘Farrell’, obvious Irish descendants who arrived here many years ago. Irish diaspora is unbelievable sometimes. I instantly felt ‘at home’ when I arrived here.

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We drove back to Mina Clavero to get some lunch at a well-known hotel in the town called Hotel Rossetti. Max and I ordered a Quilmes Cristal,which is a pale larger of the Quilmes series. Although it is extremely popular in Argentina, I found it to be very bland. However, since it was very sunny the beer was drank. Max recommended I order a dish found all across Latin America called humita. Max said there are many different varieties of humitas. In the restaurant they had humita soup, which Max said was good. It was essentially a sweet corn soup with onion, cheese and herbs. It reminded me of French onion soup but with sweet corn. It was extremely tasty but I felt it was very heavy to eat during a hot day in Argentina. I needed to finish the bottle of cervesa to cool down after it!

Soon we were back on the road and left Mina Clavero in the direction towards Córdoba city to reach a town called Alta Gracia. In between the mountainous area of Mina Clavero and Alta Gracia is one of Argentina’s world rally tracks. This road is mostly by-passed as it is a gravel and mud track with numerous potholes. Max drives a 4×4 and we could not turn down an opportunity to drive on a rickety uncharted road in an extraordinary region. It is a place you would not want to break-down or have an accident, as this place is isolated and has many sharp turns along big drops, but we were buckled up and ready!

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After surviving the drive across the rally track, we arrived at Alta Gracia. Our main reason for driving to this town was to visit the Museo Casa de Ernesto “Che” Guevara – the Che Guevara museum. This town is very close to Córdoba city so it is worth visiting for any passer-by’s to learn about one of the most famous Argentinian figures, who also has Irish roots as his full name is Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara Lynch! Che Guevara’s family moved to Alta Gracia, as Che suffered from asthma and the dry climate of this area alleviated his condition. Che spent most of his childhood and adolescence here. The museum contains excellent photographs and memorabilia from Che’s early life. It is an exceptional museum to visit, especially for the cheap entrance ticket, or even just to walk around the foothills where Che Guevara grew up.

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We drove back to Mina Clavero to relax and go for an evening meal with friends in a restaurant called Lo de Jorge, located in the centre of the town. The restaurant is renowned for their excellent dishes and high quality beef. It is best to eat there at night time when you can taste the delights of their remarkable barbequed food. I became very familiar with asados but when I arrived into Lo de Jorge I was struck with what I saw – a two sided barbecue with almost every cut of a single cow in the middle. I was fascinated by what I saw that I had to take a photograph. Much to my surprise, Argentinian tourists were taking photographs of the asado too, as they saw nothing like it before! We were seated at a table near the barbeque and enjoying ice cold cervesa while watching the spectacle. We were all served big chunks of beef and ate them like carnivores. The reputation of Lo de Jorge is well deserved because it was easily the nicest restaurant I went to during my travels. I only realised several years afterwards that Lo de Jorge is recommended in the the ‘travelers bible’ – the Rough Guide. It is definitely worth a visit. It was a fantastic last night, off the beaten track in the province of Córdoba. It was a place I truly missed when I left for Buenos Aires.

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Dreams and Gastronomical Delights in Argentina

If something is possible and you want it, then why not get it? I believe that there are two types of people in this world – Those who just dream, and those who dream and do. I dream and do. Argentina is no longer an idea. In my eyes it was a plan that can be achieved. At the age of 19 I decided to fulfil my desire to travel to a country I have longed for since my early teens.

When I mentioned the plan to my family, I was met with instant objections.

‘WHAT?’

‘Argentina! Do you know where and how far Argentina is?!’

‘Why on earth would you want to go there?’

‘Huh! Are you mad?’

I loved the opposition from my brother – ‘Do you know where and how far Argentina is?!’

I just bit my tongue and said under my breath ‘Do you not know I study f#&$ing Geography?!’ I was met with objections for over five minutes with their comments going in one ear and out the other. I walked back to my room to call my Argentinian friend, Max, who use to work in Dublin and a few hours later I had my flights booked.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in Dublin airport’s terminal one, writing and reflecting at the boarding gate for my flight to Madrid, when I caught a glimpse of a couple sitting in front of me with a ‘Footprint’ guide to Argentina in their hands. We were both looking in the same direction at the same time so I smiled and said ‘Hey! I’m glad I’m not the only person leaving Dublin for Argentina! Where are you guys headed?’ The man smiled back ‘Cool! We are headed to Madrid, then onto Buenos Aires directly’ I was thinking my flight over to Argentina via Madrid and Chile sounded daft! ‘Great! I’ve to fly to Santiago first, then I am onto Córdoba… was your flight expensive?’ ‘It was €1,800 each.’  I smiled because I was delighted that my flight cost me €1,050 – a bargain in comparison to the Irish couple in front of me. We made our farewells and boarded the plane for our adventures.

I was on my second flight in no time but I quickly became very annoyed as on board I was informed that the flight has to land in Sao Paulo before Santiago. I was hoping this extra stop over would not affect my connection to Córdoba and leave my friend waiting. Luckily, Sao Paulo was just a quick refuelling stop – They didn’t want to alarm passengers! After a rapid in-transit excursion through Santiago Airport I was on my final plane for approximately two hours. The flight over Chile was breath-taking. For a country world renowned for their wines, which I know little about, I can easily say it is certainly justified from looking over this country at the raw beauty of their mountain ranges and extensive vineyards in the mountain valleys. This flight would be a wine connoisseur’s dream!

After the pleasant journey, I was soon acquainted with my friend Max and his brother Walter. I was on the road gazing outside the car window in excitement looking at this new world I had never seen before – a picturesque city of Córdoba still tinted by its Spanish colonisers. The Universidad Nacional de Córdoba caught my eye and Max informed me that it was the former Jesuit University, built in the 17th century that was previously a school but quickly developed into a University, which is now one of the oldest Universities in South America. We stopped the car to explore the old living quarters of the missionaries within the campus that is now a World Heritage Site. We could not stay long as all of us were hungry for breakfast. After an hour drive outside the city I made it to a town called Mina Clavero. Max’s brother said ‘Hey Brian! Are you looking forward to your first Argentine breakfast?’ ‘Oh yes I am! Can’t wait! Does it include beef?!’ I said jokingly. Max laughed and said ‘No, but don’t worry Brian, we will be eating plenty of beef while you are over! You will be like a true Argentine man when you return home to Ireland!’ I was handed a plate of criollitos with a jar of Dulce de Leche. Criollito is an Argentinian pastry, that looks and tastes quite similar to puff pastry but it is much denser and filling. Dulce de Leche, meaning ‘candy of milk’, is a spread, which is made out of milk that has been reduced down until it is like caramel in texture. It tastes almost like thick condensed milk, however it is much darker and sweeter. It was absolutely delicious!

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A few moments later I began to get nervous as I saw Walter put a bag of green grinded up leaves, which resembled marijuana, on the table along with a silver pipe. My eyes were glued at this when Max was not paying attention. I never pictured Max being a drug user! What the hell is this?! Max smiled and said ‘We are going to have some Yerba Mate Brian!’

‘Yerba what now?! Yerba like herbs?! What kind of herbs are you talking about?!’ I said to myself. I could not be rude so I just said out of curiosity ‘What is that?’ I was told it is a tea Argentinian people drink, served in a wooden goblet called a gourd and filled with the marijuana-like herbs! It is then filled with hot water and the silver pipe is put in, called a bombilla. It is a social drink with an almost ritual-like ceremony as everyone drinks from the same gourd as it is passed around a table. When the water is finished in the gourd it is passed to the ‘Mate Maker’ who fills it up and the ritual is continued. It was a nice drink that helped my coffee cravings as not many people seemed to drink coffee here.

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After a long siesta and a refreshing shower, I was introduced to Max’s father who was busy preparing food for a meal with family and friends. Max pointed out the asado in his garden, which is a traditional Argentinian coal fire barbeque. The guests arrived and we were seated, watching Max’s father cook the food. The asado was full of different cuts of beef. My mouth was watering with the sights and smells. We were all served chunks of beef and nothing else! It is no joke that Argentines like beef! I was surprised to see all the meat cooked well-done as Argentinian beef is world-renowned for its quality. I was informed that this is quite normal! Despite my disappointment of not getting to eat Argentinian beef dripping with blood, I was pleasantly surprised with the powerful flavour of the meat and how the knife would cut through it easier than butter. As an honoured guest at the dinner party, I was served tripa gorda and told it was cow’s intestines. Although I am adventurous with my food, cow’s intestines sounded disgusting! However, I could not repel my inquisitiveness to new food nor could I turn down the privileged position I was put in. I ate it diligently despite the repulsive texture resembling that of a rubber hose oozing out soft warm sludge. It was a nauseating experience.
ImageAfter the meal we all followed Max to his gastropub down the road called ‘Pericles’. On the walk Max poked fun at my mannerisms at the table. I introduced myself to all the women during the meal with a big ‘Hola’ and shook their hands. ‘Brian! Brian! Brian! In Argentina we don’t do that! The etiquette here is to kiss a girl on the cheek! Don’t shake their hands! Ha ha! You only shake men’s hands but you give them a kiss on the cheek too if they are close to you or want to be extra friendly!’ Max smiled and said, ‘I will have you trained to be a true Argentinian man by the end of this night!’
 As soon as we arrived Max instantly got giddy, which I was getting terribly confused about, as he ran towards the drinks fridge and pulled out a bottle of beer. ‘Oh Brian you must try this – it tastes like Guinness!!!’ I read the label of the beer out loud ‘Quilmes Bock…. Ilmes… Guinness… It may sound like GuinNESS but I don’t think it will taste like Guinness!’ The bottle was a litre size and I was thinking I was in for some night ahead! Max gave me a glass and we were beckoned to a table where his friends were seated at. My eyes were glued to this beer that I opened as soon as I sat down and poured myself a glass. ‘Quilmes Bock’ is a very tasty dark larger, however I can gladly tell you it doesn’t taste a thing like Guinness! It is a very good beer though, quite light and has a nice sweet kick in the end. I enjoyed it so much that after a big mouth full I had to top up my glass again! I was met with stares from Max’s friends, which I didn’t understand. Max laughed and explained, ‘Brian! In Argentina we share a bottle of beer!’ I blushed from embarrassment. It was a nice social etiquette but at the speed we were drinking the litre bottles, I was thinking ‘Why don’t they just have individual bottles here?’

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ImageIt was getting late and I was beginning to feel the jetlag. The litre bottles kept on arriving at the table and everyone was becoming increasingly inebriated. I lost count of all the beer we consumed! I think all of us did! Max shot up from his seat and said ‘Fernet!… Fernet!… Fernet and Coke! Brian must have a Fernet and Coke!’ I became nervous…

‘What is Fernet?!’

‘Oh you will find out Brian!’

‘Ah bollocks!’ I muttered.

I am not a spirits drinker but I said to myself, ‘I will drink it, but hopefully whatever it is – it will stay down!’

Max came back a minute later holding numerous narrow tall glasses, about 30cm high, filled with Fernet, then topped with ice and coke! I took a sip and luckily it was something I could drink! Fernet is an Italian digestif but seen as ‘Argentine’ as everyone here drinks it on a night out! It is an extremely powerful tasting spirit with intense flavours of herbs and spices. It reminded me of Jagermeister but much more sharp in taste. Unfortunately the coke did not hide the flavour of the drink as the more I drank it the more I hated it! And the more I drank it, the stronger the taste got, as the Fernet was near the bottom of the glass!! Unfortunately the Fernet and cokes kept on coming…

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Luckily, Argentines are fond of ‘pub-grub’! I was invited into the kitchen to see how Argentinian sandwiches, called lomitos, are made. Circular shaped bread, like pita-bread but thicker, is sliced and lightly grilled. When this is completed, lettuce and tomato is placed on the base of the bread. A very thin slice of beef is put on a very hot pan, which gets turned almost instantly, then topped with a slice of ham, cheddar cheese and an egg. The heat from below melts the cheese and cooks the egg. This is placed on the bed of lettuce leafs and tomatoes and the top of the bread is pushed down on the beef, cheese and egg, breaking the yolk. It is sliced down the middle and served with crisps. Although lomitos are quite simple, they were delicious and went down a treat for everyone, especially after all the booze! I looked at my watch and saw that it had passed my first twenty-four hours in Argentina. It was time to call it a night. I smiled to myself thinking ‘This was in incredible first day! A dream come true! I am looking forward to my next day in Argentina!’