En route to Ushuaia, Argentina, to launch our Antarctic adventure, we stopped in Buenos Aires for a week. We found it to be a vibrant city and easy to get around using the Metro subway trains. However, we learned a very important lesson that the subways close at night! We nearly got trapped inside after they gated off the entrance. Who knew? When we came up against the locked gate at the top of the stairs, it was one of those types of moments when your heart suddenly jumps out of your chest and you break out in a sweat. We found our way to the stairs on the other side of the street and exited an unlocked gate with great relief.
People often ask if we felt safe when we have visited a big city. Yes, we did, but we also keep a pretty low profile. I mean, we look exactly like the western tourists that we are, but are dressed plain and dull and keep our cash well-secured. (My father-in-law had just given me some socks that have zipper-pockets on the side ... an excellent cash stash underneath my pants.) I had my camera out, always with my hand on it at my side, but with a wide-angle lens on it, it's also pretty low-profile (and I always turn my camera straps inside out so they are only black on the outside, not bright red advertising "Canon!"). It was the only thing I carried, so I could devote full energy to it if somebody were to try to nab it! Here's the one bit of advice I'd give someone traveling to Buenos Aires -- unless you are used to walking uneven cobblestone streets, wear sturdy shoes with ankle support, as the sidewalks are not only uneven, but often torn up or crumbling.
So what did we do in the city? Well, besides spending two afternoons at the utterly fascinating Recoleta Cemetery, here's a run-down of some of the other sights we experienced.
As Erik and I are both book lovers and especially bookstore lovers, we were delighted when a local clued us into this amazing (and actually pretty well-known) bookstore cafe, El Ateneo. The building is an old theater, and the store didn't alter the architecture. The cafe is on the stage, and the rest of the building is gloriously packed with books. It's in the Barrio Norte section of town, along one of the main city avenues, Santa Fe.
Of course, I cannot visit a city without nabbing a picture of a cat! And how much more perfect could this one be than sitting in a bookstore on top of a book about a family of kittens! (una familia de gatitos!)
Our last day in the city we didn't have a plan, we were just killing time until our flight, so we wandered down some narrow cobblestone streets and came across an antique bookstore. And it turned out there was also one just across the street. Between those two stores, we frittered away the entire afternoon. Their books, and a lot of them were in English, were absolutely stunning. I've never seen such a marvelous, well-preserved collection of books. Especially some of their illustrated children's books were to die for. But the price tags were like making a mortgage payment, so we left with only one ridiculously expensive book, but a real gem and appropriately about Argentina, and especially interesting since we had been to parts of Patagonia: "Through the Heart of Patagonia," published in 1902.
These bookshops were not in the San Telmo district, but San Telmo is where the large antique markets are, where we also spent a lot of time perusing and selecting a couple goodies to take home. That was when we ran into the Candombe parade.
One of the most popular tourist destinations in Buenos Aires is the Teatro Colón opera house. Like El Ateneo bookstore, it's a round theater with multiple balconies and a beautifully decorated ceiling. Difiicult to get a good photo in the low light.
The hallways around the performance part of the opera house are just as elegant as the stage area. This is used as a lecture room.
The main feature of the entrance to the opera house is its stained glass windows and ceiling.
The Metropolitan Cathedral is another popular attraction. I liked it because it was grand, beautiful, ornate ... but not over-the-top ostentacious, which a lot of the major European cathedrals are to me.
From the most popular destinations in the ciy to a rather obscure one, we ran across the National Railway Museum (Museo Nacional Ferroviario Raul Scalabrini Ortiz), housed in an old train station, by walking randomly around the city. If you've followed me for awhile, you probably know we usually devote a day or two in any location where we're based for more than a few days to itinerary-less random wandering -- whether by foot or car. And we always find gems.
In spite of its name, the museum wasn't full of trains, but rather of the technologies used in operating a major train transport system. So things like old telegraphs, telephones, computing machines, also some nice old photographs of the railways in the old days. We ended up spending a couple hours there. And it was free admission, and we were given a lot of merch ... a nice cloth bag, several postcards, a pencil, and some stickers. For free admission, it ain't bad!
So ... how many of you would guess that I was a telephone switchboard operator in college?! I used the old cables like pictured below, plugging them in and connecting people. My ear-piece was a little more modern, though, than those pictured here. I was recently interviewed on a show about "mid-life" female travelers ... I hadn't posted this article at the time I was contacted with a request to be interviewed. How did they know I was so old??? I don't know, but here is confirmation, haha.
Of all the things we saw at the musuem, this "Millionaire" calculating machine was the most fascinating to me, patented in the 1890s. It would calculate extremely long strings of addition, multiplication, etc., through the use of sliding bars, pegs, and a number pad. I'm just stunned. An early form of calculator (but as I know calculators, you just press the "on" button, type in some stuff on tiny little buttons and see the result in a digital screen). Just like early computers took up entire rooms, this was the early calculator. From the Wikipedia entry on it: "The Millionaire was advertised as being the 'only calculating machine on the market ... that requires but one turn of the crank ... for each figure in the multiplier or quotient,' making it the fastest calculator available." The directions for operating it are extensive. You can read some more about it here from the National Museum of American History, but if you're like me, it's still all incomprehensible ... I don't understand how some metal bars and pins and levers and cranks can calculate math. A modern calculator, on the other hand, is completely myserious, all the inner workings are hidden from me, I have no idea what tiny objects lie inside one, and therefore I can accept them ... like you have faith that someone smarter than you knows what they're talking about.
Outside the museum as we finally left, we saw this mess of dogs and leashes ... the dog walker obviously went out for coffee! I wish him/her luck in untangling the leashes!
Speaking of dogs ... we ran across this terrifying poster of all the mob dogs at large.
Another interesting building we entered randomly was the engineering building for some university. We ran across it on our way from the subway stop to the Recoleta Cemetery. Also, there is a cafe there that we stopped at for lunch that serves amazing lunches of pizzas except that the crust isn't bread dough, it's meat! Or maybe this was just a stand-alone school of engineering, I don't know, I don't read Spanish! It didn't matter, we saw the doors were open, we walked inside, found that we could walk around all the floors, and a couple of them had museum-like displays of old technologies.
We always appreciate quality street art in a city. We've seen a lot of it, and Buenos Aires definitely had some murals to keep pace.
We had a meal in this hip restaurant, clearly popular with the locals, best described as a burger joint. You could spend an hour just inspecting their walls, and they had some fun posters and bobble-head toys.
Surprisingly, we also enjoyed a lot of beer in Buenos Aires! I was not expecting much of a beer presence, being a region best known for its wine. And to be sure, we drank a ton of our favorite type of red wine: malbec. But there were also some breweries with a wonderful selection of handcrafted beers. If you can believe it, below I'm drinking my favorite type of beer -- locally-brewed pumpkin beer -- in Buenos Aires!
OK, so winding down with a few more shots. We were walking down one of the main artery promenades in Buenos Aires when we ran across a demonstration, with demonstrators filling one street, and a line of riot-gear outfitted policemen across from it. We were all intrigued and figured we'd happened upon a special event with an imminent brew-ha-ha. But apparently, this street is Protest Central, and they happen all the time, not really a big deal. But coming from where we do, in small-town Colorado, USA, this seemed to us like a big deal. This day, we were told it was a gathering of indigenous peoples of Argentina marching for more rights for indingenous populations.
Here is a random street sign I liked (I don't know what it says, just like the cat in the hat pumping gas):
Patagonian mara in a park. It looks kind of like a giant jackrabbit, but it's actualy in the classification order of rodent:
Near the Recoleta Cemetery is a stretch of street market and souvenir stalls and several outdoor cafes. It's a nice place to hang out before or after exploring the cemetery. A burly bronze man was kindly keeping this large tree branch up for us to walk under.
I don't have any photos from the evening, but one great thing we did (which I honestly thought would be kind of silly or cheesy but it just seemed essential to do in Buenos Aires) was go see a tango show. I didn't book us into one that includes the audience learning some of the moves ... no way! We got a recommendation from our hotel front desk staff for what they thought was the best one to see, and managed to book reservations online from our laptop in Spanish! The evening included being picked up at our hotel, a full dinner with multiple bottles of wine, and the show, which was in a very small cabaret theater, so all seats were near the stage. And we were so very entertained. The music was great, very talented musicians; the dancing was indescribable, really. I had not realized exactly what tango is and how involved the dancing couples' legs are. Having arthritis in my own knees, I can only imagine that those girls have top-of-the-line knees to swivel their lower legs around the way they do. I'm sure some shows or production companies are better than others, but I really must recommend going to a show if you are spending any time in Buenos Aires, get a local to suggest a good one.