Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dancing in Buenos Aires

Thinking about Argentina
Having come to Chile to write for six months, I was faced with the common 90-day limit on being in the country that everyone else faces without permission to stay longer. My original plan was to take the bus east, over the Andes and past the magnificent Aconcagua, to Mendoza to renew my tourist visa. This was a cheap, quick, and easy way to accomplish this feat, but as I met friends here in Chile, and as we talked about the must-see cultural places in South America, and as we did this I realized that I wasn't going to visit the northern part of the continent, I soon came to the conclusion that I really wanted to go to Buenos Aires instead.

My hope was to see this cultural giant over five days. It is supposedly the most European city on the continent, and even though that may not impress some people, particularly those who want to get away from Europe, it was interesting to me because I find European cities, in general (places such as Düsseldorf excluded from this), architecturally and culturally interesting. Unfortunately, rain kept us from seeing more during the day, so as a result, those first few nights, when the weather was mostly clear, we spent in Palermo near Plaza Cortazar, which is a great place to breathe in the nightly atmosphere unless one wants mixed drinks. As we found out our very first night in Buenos Aires, the mixed drinks are insanely weak there. To put it bluntly, after having three mixed drinks at three different bars that night, I will never buy another mixed drink in Buenos Aires again. The water is significantly cheaper for the same product.

A sculpture at San Martin
On the second night, we ate at the famous La Cabrera steakhouse. It was here that we had to wait an hour-and-a-half to get a seat, which we expected and didn't mind mainly because they served free champagne while we waited (which we also knew in advance and kind planned around). I managed to break the champagne serving table by leaning against it (hey, my legs were tired!), however, and that was the end of the champagne for the night, (I do feel a little guilty for ruining that for everyone). Having said this, though, while the food was certainly fantastic, I would give this restaurant a skip if you're looking for good steak. Yes, it is a landmark of sorts, but really, the steak in Argentina is so good and so common that it is really easy to find excellent food everywhere without the wait and the inflated prices. I don't want anyone to think the food was poor here or undervalued - it certainly was not - but I think there are better options.

The Obelisk
For instance, we had a much better dinner the next night just around the corner from La Cabrera at a place called Meridiano 58. It was raining that night, so we were lucky to have chosen this place as we did. After having walked around for a few blocks, we finally "settled" on this place and as soon as we sat down the heavens opened up. The service was excellent, the food even better, and the upstairs window was seat perfect for watching a guy and gal make out under the eaves of the bar across the street. They were making out so aggressively that we made an under/over bet that they'd be naked in less than an hour. Proof was never finalized, so we will never know who won the bet.

But back to the point at hand, the food and presentation at Meridiano 58 were better than at La Cabrera and the prices were better, too. So, remember, don't be so hasty to eat at the steakhouses recommended in the guidebooks; yes, they're good, but it is important to note that they are all good.

Before eating at Meridiano 58, however, we met up with some friends of a friend who made all sorts of recommendations for our final two days. We met at their new tango studio (one is a teacher, one is her husband, and the other is doing tango documentaries - see the final paragraph for more info on that) and chatted for a while. It was a very informative meeting for a couple of reasons: 1) we learned that there would be a free tango show put on by the most famous show, Tango Argentino, the next evening down by the obelisk and; 2) I was given a good walking tour to do the next day while my friends slept off a hard night clubbing in Palermo. Since the rain had dampened our spirit for sightseeing the previous couple of days, I was excited to finally get out and see the city.

Ballet and opera in Plaza Lavalle
The next day began with my friends conking out on the bed at six-thirty in the morning and with me leaving the room a few hours later at eleven. I started out in the heavy mist at Plaza San Martin, where we were staying, and then moved my way west toward the wide open Avenida 9 de Julio. The obelisk was ever-present to the south, which stood tall like a needle erupting from the empty green malls that split up the streets around me, and I walked that way somewhat disappointingly looking for the grand buildings everyone had told me about. Yes, the architecture was nice, but it was mostly of the big blocky building kind that, despite their subtle differences, were too similar to really appear dramatic to my eyes.

The new built onto the old at Plaza Lavalle
Plaza Lavalle, however, near the courthouse, was my first taste of discovering a quiet, green space with excellent architecture. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, to my right, as I walked along the avenue. I wasn't sure if I'd have the time to make this quick pit-stop because the tour seemed long and I wasn't sure how long it would take me to get to the agreed-upon lunch location I had previously made with my friends, but I was here to see things and not worry so much about time, so I turned to the right anyway and was pleasantly rewarded with what I saw. My two favorite shots of this park were of the Teatro Colon (the hall for opera and ballet) and a strange building across the way that was a mix of modernity and the old European styles seen across the city. The courthouse itself was a nice building, but it was really no different than the other large, blocky buildings on Avenida 9 de Julio, so I didn't stick around long for that.

From there I moved on to Avenida de Mayo, which is where I gratefully took a wrong turn.  Gratefully is definitely the correct word because I think this side of Av de Mayo, toward Plaza del Congreso, is much prettier than the one heading toward Plaza de Mayo. The buildings here were more interesting to me, and, as you may be able to see by the photo at the top of this post, el Congreso Nacional is a remarkably beautiful building despite its appearance as being in disrepair. If I had been paying better attention to the map then I never would have seen this pretty section of town.

Av de Mayo (the good side)
I hadn't actually discovered I was in the wrong place until I realized that none of the buildings at Plaza del Congreso were pink in color. The map appeared backward to me, but after a while I realized that I had gone in completely the opposite direction. Once I figured that out, I headed back in the other direction toward Plaza de Mayo, which, despite the fact that there were some nice and important buildings there, too, I didn't linger here due to the lack of sights. Yes, Casa Rosada and the cathedral are worth seeing, particularly if you can get in for a free tour of the government building, but the sights really started when I finally found Defensa, the road I was initially looking for over by Plaza del Congreso.

Defensa is an old-world cobblestoned street that leads right into the heart of San Telmo, a sort of bohemian neighborhood that is more gentrified now than it probably was a few decades ago. Despite the gentrification, which is really only because of the quality of shops, restaurants, and cafes established there, the buildings still grow vines that go from the ground to the top; the churches still feel cozily old; the balconies, strewn with vines, clean laundry, long curtains swaying in the breeze, and built with green, wrought copper or heavy iron railings, invited me in as if I belonged up there and not on the quiet street below; and the people moved about such they lived there instead of behaving as if they were there only for the tourists. It had a neighborhood feel to it, and for once I was really excited to be in Buenos Aires.

The oldness of Defensa
I probably walked twice the distance of Defensa in crossing the street alone just so I could take pictures of both sides. Really, if there is one thing to do in Buenos Aires, it is to take your time walking along Defensa from Plaza de Mayo to Plaza Lezama where San Telmo and Boca meet.

Plaza Lezama was actually my goal for the day, but as I mentioned above, I supposed to meet my friends at the corner of Defensa and Estados Unidos at two o'clock. I honestly wasn't sure if they were going to make it (they came into the room pretty heavy from a hard night of partying), but I didn't want to make that assumption and ditch them when they were likely tired and hungover. So I settled down on the corner and waited for them. As luck turned out, they were only a half-hour late, so I was glad that I didn't walk all the way to the end of the road, as I neither would have made it back in time nor would have enjoyed myself at the park. It was also a good thing that I met them, too, because their cab driver (they were too hungover to do the same walk I had done) had recommended a restaurant on Estados Unidos just a few steps down from our meeting place.

One of the churches on Defensa
After some confusion on which restaurant it actually was that he had recommended, we ate at La Brigada. At first we thought it was La Rosalia across the street that we were supposed to go to, which is also odd because as I was looking at the slide show on their website (to ensure I had the right restaurant in this blog) I swear I saw one of our tango friends (the husband) in one of the pictures (what a coincidence!), but the outside(ish) seating seemed noisy due to the construction at the nearby intersection. So we went to La Brigada instead and had another excellent meal. The prices weren't as great compared to the value as Meridiano 58, but the atmosphere was fun and we enjoyed our lunch. For my friends, it was a good chance to regain any lost energy and strength that had been sapped on the dance floor the night before.

After revitalizing our moods, we all headed to Plaza Lezama, which was a treat to visit. For one, it gave us a chance to see Feria de San Telmo, which is a cute little square with nice buildings and merchants selling their wares. The road beyond that stops being interesting for a while, but after we crossed under the highway things picked up again, except this time the area is less gentrified and a bit more genuine. This is where San Telmo meets Boca, the latter of which I did not get to see but, from my friends's pictures, which they got to see after we all returned from Uruguay (the three of us went to Uruguay the next day. See the link to read that write-up), it appears as if it is well worth the visit, but only before five pm (because that's when the police leave the area).

Plaza Lezama
The park itself is big and green with lots of nice statues and long paths with trees hanging overhead, but it was the streets around the park that intrigued me the most. Large murals dotted the landscape, and real-life character was painted on the buildings's facades. Groups of men, young and old, gathered around the stone tables to play chess, backgammon, and cards, and the people here, more local than the tourists on Defensa, relaxed in the warm afternoon sun that had finally broken through the rainclouds.

But then it was time to go. It was now show time, and we wanted to score excellent seats for the free tango show down by the obelisk. We were lucky and did get our wish and, oddly again, ran into another one of our tango friends at the show (the videographer). I talked with him for a while before the show started and agreed to meet up with him after I got back from Uruguay.
The rehearsal
The show itself was fantastic and the atmosphere electric. Once the daytime lights fell and the nighttime curtains rose, and when the sky was a crystal clear blue, the crowd cheered and sighed with awe as the performers moved each other across the stage. It was funny because we were sitting next to the sound stage and the workers were talking to each other throughout the show, but the serious tango viewers kept shushing them to be quiet so that they could let the music soak into their minds. There was even a nude stage change that I barely caught (yes, it was the woman in the photo above, dammit!), too.
Seconds before the stage change
Inside the cathedral at Plaza de Mayo
The show was a nice way end to our trip in Buenos Aires together. We were off to Uruguay the next day, and when we returned to Buenos Aires a few days later, we only had a few hours together for lunch before my friends headed north to Iguazu Falls. I wished that I had seen more, and maybe attended a Milonga or two (the local tango dance houses) after seeing the show, but that's OK. I got a good feel from the city and I plan to return again someday in the future.

One side note: I met up with my videographer friend after returning from Uruguay so that we could discuss our art projects. It is always nice to discuss these things with fellow artists, even if the artist doesn't completely understand the other artist's field of work. He is doing a documentary on the history of the Milongas as well as setting up a business to do mini-documentaries for tourists coming to Buenos Aires to learn how to tango. A website for Tango2Go should be up by the middle of March, 2010. To make the story nice in the end, we went to La Rosalia, the place across the street from La Brigada, you know, the one that was initially too noisy? Well, in the end, it tied Medriano 58 for the best food and value that I had in Buenos Aires.
A final look at another church on Defensa


  1. I was in BA. Was there for 6 months and traveled toward home for the seventh. Did a good bit of writing for one of those newsy review websites, forget the name. Left for uruguay halfway through for the 3 month piggy back that everyone does.

    I lived on Defensa above an art gallery with some crazy lady who eventually kicked me out on the street and I had to go to palermo. It was the best of the best of times.

    Its funny, I write and climb too. I've been to all of your pictures.

    Thanks for the throwback.

  2. Hey Climb Guy,

    Thanks for the feedback. Your pic looks a bit familiar. Maybe we know each other in another way?


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