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This visit came in the middle of summer during the month of February. Since Argentina is well south of the equator they enjoy summer while we battle winter in North America. And talk about hot! The temps for most days of the trip were in the 90s and flirting with 100F.
As always, we didn't have much time to spend here so we focused on the city of Buenos Aires (pronounced Boin-os Eye-rus, more or less).
By the way, as we get started here if you'd like to get into the Argentinean swing of things, go here and select a streaming radio station from Argentina. FM Tango from Rosario is great for non-stop Tango!
I hate to admit this but we had long thought about visiting South America but put off any such trip over concerns about crime based on stories from our travel associates and published reports. However I'm delighted to tell you that we found Buenos Aires to be a very safe place. Not once during our visit did we even feel remotely threatened.
Our first impressions of Buenos Aires were a little discouraging. Emerging from the airport the buildings we saw at the departure end of the airport looked more like you'd see in an old Iron Curtain city. But then we looked to our right and saw the sparkling, brand new terminal. In fact this is much how our total first impression of the city turned out. The city has enjoyed a big spike in tourism in recent years and the airport is vastly too small for the increase. Our guide said it was impossible for locals to find a parking spot during peak hours so using the airport means finding somebody to drop you off and pick you up.
Most inbound flights arrive early in the morning in B.A. And nearly all major international flights depart late in the night. Those are crunch times at the airport. Our long haul Delta flight from Atlanta passed over Cuba, Colombia, Brazil and the Amazon Rain Forest, near La Paz, Bolivia, Ascunsion, Paraguay and on into Buenos Aires. Flight time was just over 9 hours and 30 minutes.
Back to first impressions, on the main highway from the airport to our hotel in downtown B.A. many of the high rise buildings were pretty shabby. Some concrete was falling off some of them. They were drab, much like you'd see in Lisbon. Balconies were strewn with clothing drying in the wind -- again, much like we saw in Portugal. Then as we got closer to the city the architecture dramatically improved and the city's true colors shined brightly.
Two interesting automotive observations. Most taxis and remises (private cars, a little bit bigger and nicer than taxis) run on compressed natural gas! When the natural gas runs out a little beep sounds and the driver presses one button and switches over to regular petrol (gasoline) as the car continues to motor along. The reason they run on natural gas is that it's much, much cheaper than petrol. Our driver told us the cost was less than half of petrol, which was going for about 3 U.S. dollars a gallon at the time of our visit. The other interesting thing about B.A. were all the old Ford Falcons! The Falcon was a popular car in the 60s in the U.S. They were so popular in B.A. that production continued into the 1980s and even though they are all old now, they are still very popular down there and you see them everywhere. In fact they are so popular that their resale value continues to climb.
There were plenty of Fiats and VWs and from our observation, Chrysler was the most popular U.S. vehicle on the streets of B.A.
Taxis were small black and yellow jobs, many Fiats. Driving is pretty crazy here but amazingly during our entire visit, we saw no tempers flare nor did we see any traffic accidents. And one amazing thing about this large city was a lack of sirens. Most big international cities howl with police and ambulance sirens but not here.
Tip. When taking a taxi, pay in small peso bills. Counterfeit money is a problem in B.A. and if you hand your driver a large bill, you might wind up with change that's bogus.
The favorite mode of transportation here is the bus. They scurry about in huge numbers. Interestingly you'll see something here on busses that we've never seen anywhere else in the world. Each main wheel has a little silver tube like device that goes from the hub of the wheel to somewhere inside the bus. This is an air tube and required for most busses to make sure the tires are properly inflated.
The streets of the city are some of the widest we've ever seen. As I recall, one of the one way streets had 16 lanes! We personally tooled down one that had 12 lanes.
You'll also find a subway in B.A. called the Subte. It connects some but not all areas of the city.
Many and perhaps most locals (Portenos pronounced Por-ten'-yos) prefer to take the bus even on long hauls of 24 hours or more rather than fly. Why? Well the busses are a lot cheaper than flying and they are more luxurious, too! Many long distance buses have two levels with seats on the upper level and a kitchen downstairs where delicious meals are prepared. The seats, we were told, were better than business class on a long distance airliner.
Prior to flying down there my wife found a tour guide company on the internet and after checking them out carefully including e-mailing references, we decided to go with them and it was a great decision. Their company used to be called Meet Buenos Aires. Now, however, that one is gone and the new one, just as good, is called Buenos Aires Private Tours. The guide assigned to us was a wonderful man named Esteban. Much more on Esteban and his company here.
B.A. sits right on the Rio de la Plata, said to be the widest river in the world. It looks more like a brown ocean than a river and there's no way you can see across to the other side. In fact a ferry ride to Montevideo takes three hours to cross and go slightly south. When you get to Montevideo the river turns a more traditional blue color because it's near the Atlantic Ocean at this point.
After careful research and from talking to travel associates we chose the Hilton Hotel in Puerto Madero and it was a fabulous decision. We've stayed at Hiltons in Budapest, Rome, London, Hawaii---all over the world---and this is the nicest Hilton we've ever experienced. Rooms were huge with separate glass enclosed shower and nice bathtub. The staff was warm and accommodating in every way. We give this Hilton property the highest of recommendations! Puerto Madero is the newest section of Buenos Aires. Ironically it is actually a very old neighborhood where the main port used to be located. Then it fell into serious disrepair serving as a center for the homeless and I suspect a high crime rate. But since the late 80s or early 90s, the area has been transformed into the safest and fastest growing part of B.A. This was obvious by the incredible number of high rise buildings being built.
Some would say that a stay in B.A. should not come in Puerto Madero because it's not the heart of the city. But I see nothing wrong with being headquartered there and then taking in the rest of the city, which we did.
Puerto Madero is also blessed with some great restaurants including---arguably---the best beef shrine in a city where steak is king. I'm talking about Cabana Las Lilas. It was a short five minute walk from our hotel and we enjoyed it twice. B.A. restaurant reviews are listed at the bottom of this page.
Like Spain, Argentina is a late dinner kind of place. Most Portenos wouldn't even think of going out for dinner any earlier than 10pm. It's not uncommon to begin dinner at midnight or even later. Many of the hottest discos and night spots don't even open for business until 1am. But since hotels in Puerto Madero cater to many North Americans, many restaurants open at 7 or 8pm but if you dine at that hour, you'll pretty much have the restaurant to yourself. When you leave at 9 or 10, that's when business just starts to pick up.
Buenos Aires is one of the biggest cities in the world. In fact our guide told us that the metro population comes in at about 14 million. That's definitely big.
One thing we enoyed about B.A. was it's love for dogs. You find well behaved pooches everywhere and rarely on leaches. How they all get along is beyond me and why they don't dart out into traffic is a miracle. And most of them look pretty healthy and well cared for. We only saw one little stray that looked like he had a bad case of the fleas or the mange.
I heard the undeniable screeching of parrots as we visited the Rose Park and asked Esteban about them. He said there were a few in the city and that they were known as loros. We saw plenty of them during our visit. They usually fly in squads of 8 to 15 birds and they are extremely loud. They weren't the most beautiful parrots in the world, mainly green. Very similar to the parrots that buzzed around the Canary Islands.
I got a kick out of seeing so many pregnant women here! Maybe it was just me but I've never seen so many pregnant ladies in my life. When I first pointed this out to my wife she balked at my notion. But then she, too, began to come up with the same observation. Maybe it was something about the time of the year---mid February.
We visited the neighborhoods that constitute the pulse of the city and here's a look at them.
Puerto Madero is a happenin' growing place. Walk anywhere at any time of the day or night and you'll be joined by hundreds of others on the street. The action really heats up after 10pm. Lots of good restaurants, water views and night club hot spots including the popular Asia de Cuba which serves as a dinner spot and then heats up as a night club starting at 1am.
Recoleta is perhaps more than any other neighborhood the heart of the city and most visits start at the Cemeterio de la Recoleta. And to find Evita's (Eva Peron) grave just follow the crowds! It is a beautiful cemetery with incredible above ground monuments to the dearly departed. You'll also find some of the city's best restaurants here -- not in the cemetery but in the area!
Palermo is known for many things but stands out for its progressive, trendy restaurants. Palmero SoHo is a take off on New York's SoHo with trendy bars and restaurants. It's also the biggest barrio in the city and is absolutely huge!
Microcentro is home of the famous Calle Florida or Florida Street in English. It's a huge 14 block pedestrian mall choked with shoppers looking for great deals on leather, jewelry and other goods. The only negative we found here were the touts trying to lure us into their leather stores. They were a bit obnoxious but tolerable. My wife picked up two leather purses that appeared to be of good quality for $50 U.S. At least they haven't unraveled yet! They really do look nice!
San Telmo is a very old part of the city with cobblestone streets and weekend street markets with Tango bands playing. This is where most of the Tango clubs are located. You can just take in Tango dance but most opt for dinner followed by a Tango show. The cost can be pretty steep $75 or $80 U.S.
Retiro is home to nice parks, some good restaurants and Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, the city's close in local airport serving domestic routes and some close by countries like Uruguay.
Belgrano hosts an extremely upscale neighborhood where the well heeled enjoy incredible homes and villas.
La Boca is on most tourist agendas. It is famous for it's brightly colored dwellings. This got started when mainly Italians immigrated to B.A. many years ago. They were so poor that they often removed parts of their boats and included those parts in constructing homes. You still see a few of these but nowadays they just continue the tradition by painting their homes in bright shades. La Boca is on the water but it's not pristine water. In fact is smells of sewerage. And this is the only spot in B.A. where we felt it was a little shady.
The high tech segment of the world's economy is well represented in B.A. with high rise buildings boasting names such as Microsoft and Sun. Their economy went south in the early 2000s but has bounced back fairly well. The biggest problem now is unemployment. At the time of our visit the unemployment rate was 14%. As Esteban told us, losing your job in B.A. amounts to a tragedy.
When it comes to food, beef is king in B.A. and not just the filets and t-bones and strips. They eat all parts of the cow including the intestines, testicles, stomach lining--you name it. And it's all good. Some restaurants including Las Lilas produce meat on their own Estancias which is Spanish for ranches.
The average Porteno is a serious carnivore and dinner consists of a large slab of beef, some French fries and perhaps a salad. That's it! And it is chased down with excellent, inexpensive Argentinean wine. Even at Las Lias, considered to be one of the most expensive parrilladas in town, two big steak dinners with a bottle of wine usually comes in at $70 or $80 U.S. which isn't too bad.
Some of the beef temptations you'll find include bife de chorizo (sirloin), bife de lomo (filet or tenderloin), asado de tira (rib roast), mollejas (sweetbreads), and chinchulines (small intestines).
One of the favorite meals and/or snacks in this part of the world is the empanada and they are out of this world and dirt cheap. They are small dough turnover pies baked or deep fried. Most contain meat but you can also find them filled with cheese and onions, corn and occasionally fish or seafood.
The seafood we sampled in B.A. was good but from our limited experience it wasn't what we'd call outstanding.
The national drink of Argentina (and some other South American countries) is something called mate, pronounced "mah-tay'." You see people drinking it everywhere. When I asked our guide if we could stop and pick up a cup he laughed! For some reason, this particular addiction is made on the spot with a thermos of hot water and a mate cup with silver filtered drinking straw. You put the mate (a concoction of various herbs and said to be very bitter) in your mate cup and then add hot water much as if you were making tea. Portenos would absolutely be lost without their mate! You can pick up some mate leaves at any store along with the mate cup and silver straw of your choice and try it when you get home.
Beer fans will want to try the most popular beer in B.A.--Quilmes. I found it to be quite tasty.
One nice side trip about an hour north of the city is a visit to the town of Tigre in the delta region of the Rio de la Plata. There are hundreds of islands in this area along with a nice street market on weekends. You can take a boat and see how the locals live on these islands and how timber is farmed here.
Another nice side trip from B.A. is to Montevideo, Uruguay. It's a three hour ferry ride on a high speed Buquebus Ferry. Our three hour excursion turned out to be a five hour ride, however, when the ferry experienced serious engine problems in the starboard engine. All of a sudden the boat slowed down dramatically. I looked out the rear and saw a huge cloud of black smoke. When the boat would try to speed up plumes of dangerous looking black smoked poured from the starboard screw in the water. The captain came on the P.A. speaker and explained in Spanish that due to a technical problem, the engines would have to turn a lower than usual RPM and that we would be late. If you would like to fly to Montevideo, Aerolineas Argentinas or Pluna (Uruguay's Flag Carrier) can get you there in 40 minutes in a 737 jet out of B.A.'s close in Aeroparque Aeropuerto.
While we didn't take this trip, another popular excursion from B.A. is a one hour Buquebus ferry to Colonia in Uruguay.
Another popular trip is out into the Pampas where you can visit a working Estancia. However this is a full day trip and not just a quick in and out.
BUENOS AIRES RESTAURANT REVIEWS
As mentioned earlier, Portenos eat dinner late. Most don't begin to venture out until at least 10pm and often times much later. Lunch usually begins around 1pm and concludes around 3pm. And when you to go find a restroom it will nearly always be upstairs or down in the basement. Many restaurants feature unisex restrooms.
Cabana Las Lilas in Puerto Madero is the best known parrilla (meat grill) in B.A. and it's terrific! On our first visit we each ordered a starter. I tried a meat empanada and my wife ordered fried cheese. Both were great. For our main courses I chose a double "baby beef" which is kind of like a sirloin or strip. It was probably at least 18 ounces and very flavorful. My wife chose a ribeye and it was good. However you have to stress to your server that you want your steak cooked rare if you expect to get it that way. Muy jugosa (mooy you-gosa) is their word for very rare. We got fries with our steaks. For our second visit we split an order of Argentine sausage (small portion but very flavorful) and I got a t-bone and my wife got a filet. My t-bone came to the table anything but muy jugosa. It was well done so I asked them to bring me another one, which they happily did. On each visit, dinner with a bottle of wine came to between $70 and $80 U.S. And by the way, DO try the Argentinean wine. It's great! And if you're like me and you prefer a blanco (white wine) with steak, go ahead and order it. You won't get a dirty look. Web site is here.
La Caballeriza Parrilla A Lena is another meat shrine in Puerto Madero. In fact, it's just down the street from Las Lilas in the same building. This parrilla has a roaring fire and you can watch the meats cooking away. Each restaurant down here starts you out with a variety of breads and buttery spreads. In this case the spread appeared to consist of softened butter, sour cream and chives. Quite good. We started our meal--bravely--sharing an order of tripe and sweetbreads. There was a little language confusion and I think we wound up getting an order of tripe and intestines. The tripe was tasty and well grilled. You'd never know it was stomach lining. The intestines were okay but definitely an acquired taste! Having chased that taste out of my mouth with a nice slurp of white wine, I moved on to my main selection which was a large t-bone. I asked for it muy jagosa and it came to the table that way. My wife chose a bife chorizo (sirloin) and her meat was nicely cooked rare as she had ordered it. We strayed from the French fry tradition and got a stuffed baked potato and it was good for a change loaded with sour cream, cheese, bacon--you name it. They were listed on the menu as twice baked rellenos.
Rodizio Restaurante is one of those "all you can eat" Brazilian shrines to meet. You may have tried them in North America as they are becoming increasingly popular. This one is located in the Puerto Madero area of Buenos Aires. They start you out with an incredible salad bar featuring lettuce, pasta salads, smoked salmon, huge head-on peel and eat shrimp and much more. Then the attack comes on your table with meat server after meat server each armed with a skewer of beef, pork or lamb. Don't make the mistake we made and fill up on the salad bar! Everything was great here and we highly recommend it. The restaurant is very close to the Hilton Hotel and they have a web site in Spanish and English here.
Parolaccia Del Mare in Puerto Madero is known for its seafood selections. We started out sharing an order of fried squid and an antipasto selection. Both portions were huge and they divided them up into two plates, one for each of us. First came the two plates of squid and it was outstanding. Next came two huge plates of dry cured ham, cheese, olives and other delights. For my main course I selected a fish I had never heard of before. It was called Abadejo Plancha and it was quite good. Later I saw it listed as conger eel. Yet at another place they listed it as a fish and not and eel. Whatever it was, it was tasty. My wife selected sole in a sauce and it was good. I wouldn't call the place outstanding but it was very good.
La Trastienda in San Telmo offered up a very inexpensive and good lunch. This was one of the few places open on Sunday in the area. It is actually a Tango place that offers dinner and then you enter an auditorium at the rear of the restaurant for the Tango show. No Tango at lunch, though! I started with two empanadas. One was filled with meat and the other had cheese and onions. Both were outstanding. For my main I had what I would call "chicken schnitzel" along with smashed potatoes. This is a very popular local dish and it was great. My wife got a set price meal staring out with fried mozzarella cheese (excellent) and a tuna salad for her main. She was expecting lettuce but instead it consisted of chunked tuna out of a can along with some tomato wedges and hard boiled eggs over rice. Good but nothing to write home about. Our friend Esteban had pretty much what I had only he had a red Italian sauce over his topped with cheese. Lunch for all three of us came to just $17 U.S.
La Madeline in Puerto Madero turned out to be a great choice for lunch. The place just looked good and it was jam packed with locals. In fact as we approached the restaurant at one o'clock, a local high rise building was just letting workers out for lunch and dozens made a beeline to this restaurant. La Madeline boats that it serves Italian, Pizzas and Soufflés. My wife ordered a Margarita pizza and it was very good. Simple with only cheese, sauce and some basil but good. I ordered something called Parpadelle Gratin. Parpadelle is a long, wide pasta noodle and the dish was one of the best Italian pastas I've ever had anywhere in the world. It was sauced with a light tomato sauce, a touch of cream, subtle seasonings, parmesan cheese and mushrooms. It was nothing short of sensational.
Bar Uiarte in Palermo Soho was one of our host's favorite places. Like Bar 6 (below) it is a bar, lunch and dinner place during the day and night and a disco with live entertainment at night. My wife got an interesting green lasagna (broccoli) and I had a fresh pasta dish with light sauce and olive oil. Our host, Esteban, went with a Margherita pizza and it was so big he couldn't eat it all. A nice luncheon experience.
Bar 6 in Palermo Soho was highly recommended by our guide, Esteban. It was one of his favorite places. It's a restaurant and bar during the day and through the late evening. Then it turns into a thriving disco with DJ entertainment, etc. Esteban said they did one of the best ribeyes in the city so my wife and I each went with one. Esteban got gnocchi. I started out with an order of gaspacho and it was pretty bland, even a bit bitter. It seemed like it took forever to get our main courses and when they arrived my steak was steaming, a very bad sign when you order it muy jugosa and stress that you want it rare. It was medium well but flavorful. My wife's steak was way over cooked, too. My steak came with garlic smashed potatoes and they were great. My wife got mixed vegetables with her steak. In fairness to Esteban's recommendation, we apparently just caught Bar 6 on a bad day. Esteban said he had never seen it that slow. And all the guide books give it high marks. So give it a try on your next visit!
Gran Cafe Tortoni is located in the old section of B.A. and is famous for breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee anytime and performances! It has a small theatre on the main level and a bigger auditorium in the basement area where a local radio station broadcasts live each night from midnight to 2am. This is a beloved tradition in the city and we stopped by for a cup of coffee and my wife had a slice of sinfully delicious chocolate cake. This place just exudes history and well it should having opened its doors back in 1858. Web site is here.
SNAPSHOTS FROM BUENOS AIRES
Buenos Aires Street Scenes Uno
Important tip. Cash your Argentinean pesos in for U.S. dollars at the Aeropuerto. It's very difficult if not impossible to get a bank in the U.S. to exchange them for U.S. dollars.
You'll need a passport but not visa to enter Argentina. Driving, like in the U.S., is on the right side. The currency is the peso. At the time of our visit, one dollar equaled three pesos, give or take.