“What’s new, Buenos Aires?!
I wanna say I’m just a little stuck on you!
You’ll be on me too!
And if ever I go too far
It’s because of the things you are
Beautiful town, I love you!”
Evita – Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice
Argentina has always had a place in my heart. Not only because it seems to be one of the most vibrant and appealing cities in South America, but because I’m attracted by its sultry Latin origins; it’s home to my favourite ballroom dance – the tango; and one of my best ever musicals – Evita. But most importantly, my French grandmother was born here in 1909 (in Rosario – a city 300km NW of Buenos Aires).
I was working on a project for Standard Bank, who had recently purchased the Argentinian operation of Bank Boston, requiring me, as then Head of Brand, to drive the rebranding project. It also afforded me the opportunity to visit the city a couple of times, the most memorable when I was accompanied by Geoff and we used the weekend to explore the city.
Buenos Aires, like it’s spirit city Paris, is bustling with neo-classical architecture, quaint cafés, tree-lined avenues, excellent wines, outstanding sweet and savoury pastries, and a rich cultural lifestyle. Condé Nast traveler describes the city as “Paris, dressed in a Messi jersey” 😂.
The most iconic structure of the city and visible for miles, is El Obelisco, made of white marble and built on Avenida 9 de Julio to commemorate the independence of the country in 1816. It is 72 meters high. In 2005, it was covered in a giant condom to commemorate World AIDS day. 😁 The avenue is one of the widest in the world with seven lanes in each direction plus two lanes for turning to the side streets.
Out and about, we headed to the famous La Boca district, an old working-class migrant neighborhood by the river. Originally, La Boca was a shipyard. The dock workers who lived there were so poor that they built their houses using cast-away ship building materials – planks and corrugated sheet metal. But there wasn’t enough paint of the same colour to cover an entire house, so the houses became colourful patchworks, that are now so artsy and iconic.
El Caminito (little pathway) alley is the most famous pedestrian “museum” street and is a magnet for visitors, who come to see its brightly painted houses, tiny art shops and tango cafés; as well as snap photographs of the humorous figures of Juan and Eva Perón, Che Guevara and soccer legend Diego Maradona, who wave down from balconies.
The triangular street became famous when it inspired the well-known Caminito tango song composed in 1926 by Juan de Dios Filiberto. It’s not hard to stumble across a couple dancing a sultry tango at any time of the day, accompanied by street musicians, but the whip-quick moves are most often observed after sunset.
We had a wonderful time watching the locals, admiring the dancers while enjoying the music, and vowing to the learn to dance the tango with confidence.
Among sports fans, Boca is best known for being the home of the world-renowned football club Boca Juniors. Origins of the club can be traced to the early 1900s, when a group of Italian immigrants decided to establish a football club in the city.
The most successful team of Argentina in number of official achievements, Boca was named by the IFFHS as the top South American club of the first decade of the 21st century (2001–2010). It was designated by FIFA as the twelfth best Club of the Century in December 2000. Soccer games are at the very heart of the culture and a poor result is frequently wept over.
Argentinian food is an adventure in itself. If you are a meat lover, this is your nirvana. Argentina is known for the best steaks in the world! Every imaginable cut of meat is available, perfectly cooked and seasoned and reasonably priced. The meats are usually accompanied by simple salads and potatoes. We were amazed at the tastiness of a mere bowl of rocket, dressed only in olive oil and a sprinkle of parmesan. The other yummy treat that we enjoyed is the empanada. Empanadas are the local equivalent of the pasty or pie. They are pastries stuffed with beef, chicken, spinach and/or cheese.
The irresistible Argentinian Alfajores are a soft, sweet and crumbly shortbread sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche. This very sweet condensed milk and sugar sauce is very similar to caramel and is a staple in anything dessert-like in Argentina. These biscuits are so soft they melt in your mouth and are good partners to the excellent local coffee. The Argentinans say that dulce de leche was “a gift from heaven for us all to enjoy.” 😋
I find cemeteries, especially old-world cemeteries, to be beautiful as well as a touch creepy.
La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires is no exception. It can only be described as haunting, with little streets of tombs laid out in a way that really is a city of the dead. It’s a prominent tourist destination because of its central location and being the resting place of iconic legend Eva Perón. It was startling to see some tombs in horrific disarray – broken open, with collapsed or broken coffins. We wondered what the story was behind these not-so-restful resting places.
Eva Peron was an illegitimate child born in an Argentine backwater. At 15 she left home for the big city to pursue an acting career. Shortly thereafter she met and married Juan Peron who would go on to become president of Argentina. Evita herself became very popular with the workers of Argentina electrifying audiences with her fiery speeches from the balcony of La Casa Rosada, the executive mansion and office of the President of Argentina.
She lived in style and had a fierce mission: to be the saviour of the poor. She got the women the vote, won benefits for workers, founded schools, orphanages and hospitals. She became an icon rivalling the Virgin Mary. When she died of cervical cancer, the 33-year old Evita was adored as a saint by working-class Argentines.
General Peron hired the best embalmer money could buy, to preserve her body in lifelike perfection. The embalmer tended to her for over 20 years and was accused of falling in love with the body. In 1955, a military coup overthrew Peron and he went into exile in Madrid, Spain. Evita’s body was spirited out of the country and buried secretly in Milan, Italy under the name Maria Maggi. She lay there for 16 Years. In 1971 her remains were dug up and hastily transferred to Spain and the villa where Juan Peron was staying. Gen Peron died July 1, 1974 and Eva was returned to Buenos Aires where she was quickly and secretly (in the middle of the night without ceremony) entombed in her family crypt in Recoleta Cemetery. Usually there are flowers placed on her tomb.
Puerto Madero is the vibrantly revamped dockside area. Its converted redbrick buildings contain upscale steakhouses popular with tourists and business lunchers (during my business trips, we were frequently invited by our local colleagues to dine here, where they proudly encouraged me to order the steak) Geoff and I had a delicious dinner and enjoyed wandering along the wharf afterwards.
Tango clubs and bars are an essential part of Buenos Aires life and Argentinian culture and for our last evening, we booked for the popular Madero tango dinner show, where we were treated to a delicious meal and a riot of amazing dance routines.
Not to be confused with the Spanish tango or flamenco dancing, the Argentine tango is its own evolved dance from a common heritage. One theory is that it was brought to Argentina by African slaves as the word ‘tango’ has a meaning in African cultures of “closed place” or “reserved ground”. It’s also possible that the word tango is derived from the Latin verb tanguere, “to touch”, and could have been picked up by Africans on the slave ships. It’s likely to be a combination of both European and African elements, and this is also seen through the music and dance steps.
Over time the tango became a recognisable term for a meeting place and dancing ritual for the working-class communities in Buenos Aires and Montevideo during the 19th century. The sensual dance was quite daring for its time. As it was danced by the lower classes, it was shunned by wealthy folk in the cities, leading to it being performed in low-lit, smokey bars and clubs where immigrants and artistic folk gathered.
After political struggles shook Argentina and the wider world, things like prohibition and dictatorships led to the dance being driven underground, later being revived in the 1980s by a group of young people ready to show the world what the tango means once more. From there its popularity soared and Argentina re-embraced its dance, before spreading it throughout Europe and the world. The traditional Argentine tango starts quite slowly and sets an intimate scene, but the tango lyrics often tell nostalgic, sad tales of lost or unrequited love, and are laments for what cannot be.
A little piece of Japan lives in central Buenos Aires. A beautiful garden that maintains the Japanese style and culture, is located in the Tres de Febrero Park, constituting part of the great lung of the city.
The Japanese Garden was built in 1967 by the Japanese Collectivity, as a welcome to Crown Prince Akihito of Japan and his wife Michiko, who were arriving for the first time in Argentina. Ten years later, it was redesigned following the model of Zen gardens, the project was carried out by the landscape engineer Yasuo Inomata. The garden was donated to the Municipality of Buenos Aires, in gratitude to Argentina for opening its doors to the Japanese people in times of immigration.
The park has a lagoon full of Koi fish of different colors, which is crossed by the arched, red Divine Bridge (representing the entrance to heaven). Surrounding the lake are large rocks, plants and trees of all kinds, some native and others coming from the oriental country (sakura, acer palmatum, azaleas).
Some useful Spanish phrases:
- Hello! – Hola!
- Good morning. – Buenos días.
- Good afternoon. – Buenas tardes.
- Good evening. – Buenas noches.
- Goodbye. – Adiós.
- How are you? – ¿Cómo está?
- How much does it cost? – ¿Cuánto cuesta?
- Where is the restroom? – ¿Dónde está el baño?
- How do I get to ….? – ¿Como llego a …?
- I don’t understand. – No comprendo.
- Please. – Por favor.
- Thank you! – Gracías!
- Yes. / No. – Sí. / No.
Well, what can I say about the fascinating city of Buenos Aires?
Enigmatic. Expressive. Vibrant. Spirited. Playful.
Just like its iconic dance, Buenos Aires easily captures your heart.
“No mistakes in the tango, Donna, unlike life. That’s what makes the tango so great.”
Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman