26.07.2012 - 06.08.2012 10 °C
Buenos Aires: days 168-179
Ah, Buenos Aires. Its everything that you've heard it is, and more. Its alive, its brash, its in your face, its loud, its colourful, it doesn't really come alive until night has fallen and nobody ever sleeps. Oh and if you go to the bars and clubs at night you have to look pretty hard to find somebody who isn't good-looking, or if not at least think they are.
We had been intending on doing some Spanish lessons as soon as we found somewhere that we wanted to stay for a week or more, and when we got to BA we decided we'd found the right place. As I've said in previous blogs, sometimes you find a hostel and it clicks, and in Buenos Aires the "Sabatico" in Bario Concepcion was it. From the moment we arrived there was a good atmosphere in the common room/bar area and the front-desk staff showed us around, gave us information and generally made us feel at home.
As it was a mere 15 minutes walk from the hostel, our first stop was to explore the San Telmo area which is a mix of retro fashion shops, dingy/hip bars and restaurants with live tango shows and excellent steak and wine. On Sunday it also hosts one of the best markets that we've seen since we've been away. Calle Defensa is completely closed to traffic, and instead is lined with antiques, artisan crafts, clothes, people doing the tango and lots of people funkily dressed up including a strikingly similar Jack Sparrow, a man with a dress on that was set to look as if a gust of wind had caught him, and an old crooner stood on a soap-box singing rat pack classics.
We paid several visits to San Telmo during our stay in Buenos Aires and tried a few different restaurants and bars, but always had steak and wine. One of the best meals I've had since I was away was a 'bife de chorizo' cut of steak with a blue cheese sauce on top served with vegetables and roast potatoes... ooh-la-la. After eating we'd always end up at a dimly-lit, smokey bar and never had a bad night there. That said, San Telmo after dark has its fair share of rogues lurking in dark doorways and you need to keep your eye out. There is also a piece of graffiti that reads "Ingles fuera de Isles Malvines" so some people advise not letting it be known that you're English around the city, but I think that's daft and we had no problems during our stay.
Two days after we arrived it was Lou's birthday so I arranged tango lessons and a show afterwards. It was nice to have an excuse to get dressed up for a change so we both put on our Sunday best, had a Quilmes beer for courage and headed off to try and not embarrass ourselves too much. For the first 10 minutes of the lesson the teacher showed us the steps and told us how to hold ourselves. She then let us loose on each other, and as there were twice as many blokes as girls we had to swap partners every few minutes. This was fine for me until I got paired with a fiery Brazilian woman who sternly told me off every time I got a step wrong, which was fairly frequently. After the lesson we saw a tango show that was actually more like a play but good entertainment nevertheless
So on the Monday we started our first of 5 days of Spanish lessons. The course we chose was a 20 hour 'survival Spanish' course with the content geared towards how to ask for directions, ordering food in a restaurant, speaking to a hotel receptionist and some basic conversation skills. It was really well structured and we had a good laugh with the tutor. He spoke almost solely in Spanish which was tough to begin with but the only way to improve comprehension and got easier as the week went by.
During our spare time when we weren't at school we spent our time exploring the various 'barrios' (neighbourhoods). Our favourite was Boca – originally settled by Italian immigrants and now more than a little bit rough around the edges, but the centrepiece is a ecclectic mix of cafes, restaurants, live tango shows, pavement galleries and vividly colourful buildings. The buildings are all painted in primary colours as a throwback to the time when the only paint that was available was from the port and had been used to paint ships. The barrios are all unique and in complete contrast to Boca, Palermo is where the trendy, young and rich hangout. Its an enjoyable place to visit for cafes, bars and clubs (or if you have money, restaurants), but feels eminently more European than most of the rest of Buenos Aires. Its definitely "cool", but on a backpackers budget its best visited by day to window shop and people watch.
As previously mentioned, we found a hostel we really liked in the Sabatico and as we stayed there for 11 nights we got to know the staff and other long-stay travellers quite well, including 3 Mexican girls who we introduced Gin & Tonic to, the owner Sebastian and our regular drinking partner Brian who did the night shift. We would generally get back from school around 5, have a nap and then have a beer with Brian, us practicing our Spanish and him practicing his English which worked well for everybody and with the aid of the popular social lubricant of alcohol we managed to improve vastly and Brian learned the words to some Queen songs. Later on the Mexican girls would appear and do everything in their power to stop you from going to bed sober, or even relatively so.
After one such night of excess, I awoke in the early hours to a loud thud and to my surprise Lou was lying on the floor next to my bunk; she had fallen out of the top bunk. To say that I was surprised would be an under-statement – the top bunk was more than 6 feet off the ground and the only sign of injury I could find was a tiny bump on her elbow. I think being drunk will have helped, as her body would have been relaxed, but it was really a minor miracle that we didn't have to pay a visit to the local A&E.
After we'd been at the hostel for a few days the owner Sebastian invited us to an afternoon barbecue at his house an hour outside of Buenos Aires. There were about 10 of us in total and we had what could only be described as a veritable feast. To start we had a salad and a choripan (chorizo sausage in a bun), then a plate full of all sorts of different cuts of the cow appeared and everybody helped themselves. Almost none of the cow went to waste and everybody had to have a nap afterwards due to the quantity of meat consumed.
We were initially due to leave Buenos Aires on the Saturday but after I realised that it was the first weekend of the new football season and River Plate were playing on the Sunday plans were quickly changed. Its long been high up on my list of things to do to see a football match in South America and this match was perfect; Argentina's most successful team River Plate's first game back in the top league after their first ever relegation 2 seasons before. Even better they were playing the team that beat them in the play-off and it was a 70,000 sell-out. The atmosphere was everything I expected and hoped it would be – hostile, noisy and passionate. In the end River lost 2-1 but the match had everything – a red card for the opposition keeper, a disallowed last minute goal and a missed penalty by River in the last seconds. After the game the home fans were kept behind for an hour to allow the away fans to get out of the city, such had been the ferocity of the riots when the two teams last met, and River Plate were relegated. No such riots this time but a fantastic experience that will live long in the memory. There is also a short video of the match above.