Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada

The heart of Buenos Aires is located in its "Microcentro" (or downtown), and it’s here where you will find the historic Plaza de Mayo and its crowning feature, the “Casa Rosada.”  Built in the late 1800's, the official seat of the Executive Branch of Argentina’s government has been the setting for many of the country's volatile political upheavals throughout history.  Even today, strife in Buenos Aires is palpable, evident in the often charged street graffiti that marks many of the city’s most important monuments.  The plaza’s obelisk “Pirámide de Mayo,” which commemorates the May 1810 revolution that moved Argentina closer to independence from Spain, is no exception!

Picturesque, yet congested with young couples making out, Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo is also home to the Metropolitan Cathedral, a lovely building that has seen quite a few different face-lifts throughout its 500 year history.  (According to magazines and propaganda, the city's locals - known as porteños - have also seen their fair share of face-lifts, but that’s another story all together!

Still, it’s perhaps the balcony of the Casa Rosada that is the plaza’s most photographed detail, having served as the podium for many important political figures, including Juan and Eva Perón - who rallied her "descamisados" from the location.  In 1996, Madonna filmed her performance of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" for the film version of Evita from this very same balcony after persuading then-president Carlos Menem that the movie would be incomplete without the iconic setting.  (Porteño reaction to Madonna's portrayal of their beloved “Evita” was less enthused!) 

Funnily enough, the modern-day icon had just made her first return to Argentina since filming Evita a couple weeks before our arrival in December of 2008.  During our visit, the town was certainly still buzzing from her sold-out four-night stint of the "Sticky & Sweet Tour." 

The Casa Rosada is also home to a museum that consists mainly of official and personal objects belonging to Argentine presidents.  The museum is open from 10:00 AM until 6:00 PM Monday through Friday, with shortened hours of 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM on Sundays; closed Saturdays.  Admission is FREE!

Set of Drifters tip:  Do you know how the Casa Rosada got its color?  President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (active 1868 - 1874) chose the color scheme to defuse political tensions, commissioning painters to wash the edifice in a mixture of red and white, then the current hues of Argentina’s opposing political parties.  How clever!  If you have time, try to stick around for the changing of the guards which makes for a nice photo opportunity!

Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada - Hipólito Yrigoyen 219 , Miscrocentro, Buenos Aires, 011 (54) 11 4344-3804

mixing architectural styles in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires has often been referred to as a city with an identity crisis.  While the resounding flavor is decidedly “South American melting pot,” its large boulevards, replete with sidewalk cafes, give you a first impression that you are in Europe!  When visiting Barcelona in May of 2010, your “Set of Drifters” were often reminded of Buenos Aires, and while it’s true that Spain hung its flag here first in the 1500’s, wander through the city’s Recoleta and Retiro districts and just try not to imagine that you are in France’s capital city of Paris!  Mansard roofs are everywhere - and it doesn’t stop there!  Any stroll through Buenos Aires’ La Boca or Palermo neighborhoods just may leave you wondering why you hadn’t packed your Italian phrase book!  So, what gives?

It’s really quite simple.  Immigration of Europeans from locations other than Spain occurred at the exact same time when much of the city’s largest buildings were under construction.  The resulting Neoclassical boom of the 1880’s left a healthy layer of French and Italian accents on top of the already Spanish flavored masterpieces sprouting up throughout the city.

One day, while heading back to our hotel from San Telmo, we passed by some magnificent edifices in the Congresso & Tribunales barrio; if only we had had more time to explore the Palacio Barolo and Teatro Cervantes, both dynamic examples of BA’s hodge-podge of design styles.

Another trek back to our hotel, this time on a bus, swept us through the more run-down parts of La Boca.  (Cloudy skies reveal Buenos Aires’ sometimes neglected architecture in an all new light.)  The trip was somewhat eye-opening; we even saw sheep running wild through the streets of the city!  WTF?

Examples of Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture abound, mixing together effortlessly with influences as far an wide as Neo-Gothic, French Bourbon and more modern skyscraper-type construction.  Worth checking out for the latter is the revamped enclave of Puerto Madero; its high-rise apartments and gentrified port give a nice contemporary nod to that other “Big Apple” of New York City (see below for more information.)  Ultimately no matter what your personal taste is, when it comes to architecture, Buenos Aires boldly shows that it has no boundaries, and no regrets!
Set of Drifters tip:  Since some of the best vantage points of cities are often found above, try to remember to look up every once in awhile.  We promise that you’ll get some great photos!

the drama of Argentine tango

Ask virtually anyone and they will agree that Buenos Aires and “the tango” go hand-in-hand, or toe-in-heel as the case may be.  The passionate yet restrained dance is one of the city’s main attractions and visitors to the Argentine capital will find it pretty difficult to escape its allure, not that you’d want to... at least not during the first couple days in town.

Characterized by dramatic movements that are specific and controlled, yet bubbling under with an emotional fervor shared between its two performers, tango was born out of the bordellos in working-class port neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and nearby Montevideo, Uruguay in the latter part of the 19th century.  It was developed from a hodge-podge of other influences that include the Cuban "habanera," the Uruguayan "milonga," and even elements from the African community of Buenos Aires.  Therefore, it is no surprise that tango is actually referred to as an "immigrant dance form” in Argentina, especially since any art that has its roots in brothels is rarely adopted as the face of an entire nation!

As the provocatively beautiful style of dance traveled outside of Argentina, it soon became increasingly popular with the upper and middle class populations of other world class cities like Paris, Berlin and London.  It wasn’t long before Argentine high society began to adopt the previously “vulgar” tango as their own (what else is new?), and by 1912, Argentine tango, and its ever burgeoning collection of tango musicians, were all the rage!  With the advance of classically-trained violinist Julio de Caro’s “tango orchestra,” the dance soon transitioned into the more refined, elegant, and somewhat slower form of dancing you might see today in Buenos Aires.

Daily tango performances in Buenos Aires’s La Boca district are abundant (see below for more information), though you can also witness the seductive dance from many other intriguing corners of the city.  Local couples gather in moonlight milongas (social dances) in the Plaza Dorrego of San Telmo on Sunday evenings; this may be your best bet for atmosphere.  We also recommend a staged dinner performance within a theater so that you can concentrate wholly on the dance’s captivating spirit.  (See “eats” for our experience at Candilejas.)

Set of Drifters tip:  Happen to be visiting in August, the dead of Argentina's winter?  Warm yourself up with Buenos Aires' Tango Festival and Dance World Cup.  The 15+ day celebration culminates in the stomp 'n swirl heavy World Tango Competition that attracts professionals from all of the world.  Strap on those shoes and grab a rose to place within your teeth.  This is one dangerous dance you won't soon forget!
World Tango Competition -

San Telmo (neighborhood)

Our favorite section of Buenos Aires has to be San Telmo, the quaint little barrio characterized by its cobblestone streets, cool relaxed cafes, and groovy shopping options (see “goodies”).  Not surprisingly, after delving further into the history of the somewhat shabby-chic enclave, we discovered that, once again, bohemians were at the root of its current hipster incarnation.

Originally referred to as “San Pedro Heights,” San Telmo started off as the residence for local brickworkers and dockworkers who immigrated from around the world to work in its nearby industrial warehouses.  The cultural immersion that followed gave birth to the neighborhood’s colorful and quirky vibe that is still equally as elegant!

Bordering “La Boca” to its south via the somewhat rough ‘n tumble Parque Lezama, it’s no surprise that San Telmo also has strong ties to the world famous “tango.”  The dance, which spilled out of BA’s bordellos in the latter part of the 1800’s, is still performed nightly in several venues within the neighborhood, many of which are housed in edifices so old and ignored that trees grow our from their upper level stonework!

In Buenos Aires, the barrio of San Telmo is the closest you will get to the Japanese art concept of “wabi-sabi.”  While canvasing its streets, we came across one that was being torn up for renovation.  As we snapped photos of the pulchritude of upturned asphalt, a contractor commented, “You want to remember this?"  Our answer was a resounding yes!

Set of Drifters tip:  In addition to its enchanting architecture and great shopping, San Telmo is also a breeding ground for some of Buenos Aires’ most alluring fashionistas!  Your “Set of Drifters” are always on the “groove-spotting prowl,” and here in San Telmo, no one can escape! 

La Recoleta and its “City of the Dead”

Heading into Buenos Aires’ Recoleta district via Avenida Santa Fe, we were pleasantly greeted by one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in town.  Here, impeccable landscaping graces pristine mansions and other multiple unit complexes that shoot up regally from the street below.  While strolling through the Recoleta, we were once again reminded that there are no chimneys in South America, and thus, "Papa Noel" must scale up the sides of apartment buildings to drop off presents for the kids around Christmastime!

Not surprisingly, one of the main reasons many visit this upscale enclave is for its magnificent "City of the Dead,” the Cementerio de la Recoleta.  Upon arrival, a volunteer gave us a large map that showed how the 54,843 sq. meter cemetery spreads out from its center along avenues, much like spokes of a wheel!  (The intriguing layout was designed by the French engineer Próspero Catelin.)

If you are a fan of Set of Drifters, you may have already seen our report from the mystical destination of New Orleans.  Much like that city’s above-ground cemeteries, the Cementerio de la Recoleta features rows and rows of decaying statues, gravestones and mausoleums.  And while New Orleans' St. Louis cemeteries are certainly spectacular, the Buenos Aires adaptation definitely takes the cake - or the sepulchre as the case may be - with its over 4,800 extravagant structures, many of which proffer elegant skylights that bring light into the crypts below.

With architectural styles ranging from Art Nouveau to Neoclassical to Neo-Gothic, many of the tombs seemed even more grandiose than the dearly departed’s regular living quarters may have been.  In fact, one of the most elaborate structures could have easily been mistaken for a cathedral, the underside of its large cupola covered completely in gold!  We overheard a tour guide say that the tomb was seven stories in total... yet not all of them are above ground!  Viewed through broken glass and other random debris, stacks and stacks of coffins lay in the subterranean chambers, seemingly trapping in the very souls the mausoleum hopes to honor!

Speaking of souls, the first to make its way here was that of Juan Benito, a freed black slave who was buried in Recoleta in November of 1822.  Soon thereafter, the "first public cemetery" of Buenos Aires became increasingly more "exclusive," opening its gates to some of the most influential and important people of Argentina.  Of all of the presidents, scientists, and wealthy oligarchs buried here, perhaps the most famous is Eva Perón herself!  Born Eva Duarte, Evita’s may be the ultimate rags to riches story.  The actress-turned “First Lady”/ Activist achieved much in her very short life of 33 years, bringing hope to the Argentine masses while pissing off numerous others in the process!  (You can find her modest grave in the middle section on the far left hand side of the cemetery that abuts Calle Vincente Lopez.)  Nowadays, there are actually a few living residents inside the Cementerio de la Recoleta, albeit in the form of a colony of feral cats that gather in dozens near closing-time when locals feed them.

Aside from the ornate tombs that are already gilded in precious metals and marble, any walk through Recoleta’s cemetery will also offer an unexpected look at more traditional forms of Argentina art.  Many of the tombs’ religious altars display expensive artifacts and personal objects of the deceased, and while we’re not sure how often these tombs actually get looted, more than a handful appear to have been ransacked over the years.

Naturally, it’s not just humankind that has cut a swath through the beleaguered structures of Cementerio de la Recoleta.  Broken chandeliers and shattered glass cupolas show that Mother Nature has had her way as well!  And yet, the rundown, decrepit state of affairs gives the Recoleta cemetery, and others like it, an added charm.  Grave sites littered with invading foliage, broken glass, and trash give visitors a feeling of crestfallen melancholy, and at times, shock!  (We even saw a few tombs and coffins being used as janitorial supply closets!)

With all of the tourists traipsing through the cemetery each day, it’s a wonder these souls get any peace!  Eventually we wearied from pondering life in the "City of the Dead," and after getting significantly lost amidst the maze of vaults, we knew it was time to move on!

Oddly, the Recoleta’s necropolis is surrounded by nightclubs, restaurants and some rather lovely parks that are named after countries from around the world.  We strolled through Plaza Francia and then returned back to Avenida Santa Fe, equally parched - and in desperate need of el sanitario!  We stopped off for a medialuna and a Coke before heading out on a subway to shop up Palermo Viejo (see “goodies”).
The Cementerio de la Recoleta is open from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM daily.  While entrance is FREE, a donation is suggested to acquire one of the helpful maps!  Set of Drifters tip:  One of the more striking elements of the cemetery is also one of its most delicate.  The arachnids that spin the amazingly intricate spiderwebs here are certainly not kidding around!  It’s almost as if they have been placed with a magic wand! 

Cementerio de la Recoleta - Junín 1790, Buenos Aires, 011 (54) 11 4803-1594

"El Caminito" in La Boca

The barrio of “La Boca” is comprised of an amalgamation of old warehouses and meatpacking plants (many now abandoned), and is named after its placement at the mouth (or "boca") of the Riachuelo River... or is it?  Many of the neighborhood’s early settlers were from the Italian city of Genoa, and perhaps its no coincidence that La Boca shares a strong assonance with the Genoese neighborhood of Boccadasse!

While most of La Boca is fairly rundown, the main attraction, "El Caminito," is a lively couple of blocks that feature bars, shops, art galleries, and well, let's face it, cheap souvenirs - all dressed up in colorful painted sheets of tin siding and roofing.  And while the seemingly naïve architecture is just as contrived as the “spontaneous” bouts of tango that beckon gawking tourists from restaurant doorways, there is a uniqueness about “El Caiminito” that makes it much more charming than other “tourist hell” magnets like San Francisco's “Pier 39.”  Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll avoid street buskers painted completely in gold or silver, or that Eva Perón herself won’t be waving to her followers from a 2nd floor balcony - albeit in the form of a comical statue!

We had hoped to visit the gritty, yet vibrant, neighborhood on a sunny day when its hues are best represented, but it was not meant to be.  Popping into a few stores that seemed surprisingly hip for this part of town, souvenir-hunting for the friends and family back home was easy as uno, dos, tres.  (Trust us, everyone loves a “Mafalda” T-shirt!)  The only problem was that most vendors only accepted actual pesos and locating an ATM in La Boca was about as difficult as finding a piece of tin siding not painted in turquoise, yellow or tomato red!
Like to watch hombres kicking balls around?  The neighborhood is also home to the "Boca Juniors" (one of world's top fútbol clubs - Maradona anyone?), and offers countless pub opportunities in which to support the players at the nearby stadium.  Alternately, we quite liked the art of Rachel Labenas on display at the gallery of the Centro Cultural de los Artistas, an arcade located on the 2nd level of a row of former tenements behind “El Caminito.”  The lushly-landscaped area is home to an unusual assortment of craftspeople, print makers, jewelry artisans and performers who rent out stalls on a monthly basis.  One such performer, a life-size ventriloquist musician, didn't seem to creep us out in person but, looking back now on the photos from the trip, should have!  Ay-yi-yi!

El Caminto’s Centro Cultural de los Artistas is open from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, and features a rotating roster of local Buenos Aires artisans.  While in the area, make sure you check out the design boutique of Alicia Maravilla.  The women's' clothes and accessories on display here will seduce any young hipster lass!

Eventually it was time to leave colorful, yet melancholy, La Boca behind and head back to the hotel for some much needed rest.  The neighborhood would have been a beautiful place to visit at night, yet we had other tales to tell.

Set of Drifters tip:  Watch your bags.  Like many tourist meccas, La Boca is notorious for pick-pockets, through we experienced no problems there the day we visited.

Tienda de Alicia Maravilla - El Caminito Del    Valle Iberlucea 1265 (next to the trippy Museo Histórico de Cera), Buenos Aires,

Centro Cultural de los Artistas - Magallanes 861, La Boca, Buenos Aires, 011 (54) 11 4773-0379, or 011 (54) 11 4301-1080,

Floralis Genérica and other public art

While its classic, albeit diverse, architecture may suggest that Buenos Aires is stuck in antiquity, we can assure you this city is as modern and chic as they come!  Made of steel and recycled aluminum airplane paneling, the giant metal flower sculpture “Floralis Genérica” is the perfect poster child to showcase BA’s endeavor to stay current.  Floralis Genérica was erected in April of 2002, a present to the city’s Plaza Naciones Unidas by famous Argentine artist Eduardo Catalono.  The piece rests next to a reflecting pool that really makes this shiny metallic flower pop by the light of day!

Yet aside from its already striking appearance, the monolithic example of public art has a little trick up its petals... It actually close up in the evening, emanating a reddish hue throughout the dark of night, only to reopen back up by the sunlight of the coming morning!  Sadly, we did not have enough time to witness the stunt as we were too busy immersing ourselves in Buenos Aires’ alternative to sanctioned public art, politically charged street graffiti.

What makes graffiti so appealing in Buenos Aires, is that it is actually looked upon as the art of “the people,” rather than just a nuisance.  Of course, that wasn’t always the case.  Beginning during the 1950’s and 1960’s as an expression of political angst, the art form took a back seat during the dictatorship that spanned most of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  After decades of censorship and arrest, graffiti art crept back into the consciousness in the 1990’s, and has retained its prominence and visibility ever since.
Nowadays, graffiti art can be found in just about at any nook and cranny of the city you may visit.  We witnessed some great political scribblings around the Plaza de Mayo (see above) and within the Tribunales District, where it was evident in 2009 that even BA porteños wanted Bush out of office!

Street art in San Telmo suggested that the neighborhood was “un sentimento.”  True enough, though our favorite conglomeration of graffiti and other murals was in the neighborhood of Palermo, long known as a hotbed of bohemian thought for many Argentines (see "goodies").  The colorful artwork here is unparalleled in the rest of the city, even if that zany girl with the carrot needs to shave her legs!

Simply put, we + love + Argentine + graffiti!

Floralis Genérica - located amidst four acres of land inside Plaza de las Naciones Unidas (United Nations Plaza), Recoleta, Buenos Aires

Puerto Madero (neighborhood)

After checking out the history so well entrenched in the Microcentro’s Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada (see above), we felt the need for something more modern.  And thus we traveled across the busy Avenida Alicia Moreau de Justo to the docks of the Puerto Madero district.

Traditionally, successful large metropolitan areas feature waterways that have been instrumental in the creation of trade and industry.  Often, these same districts eventually lose their importance, laying fallow for years before developers realize their ultimate potential for gentrification.  In London, Shad Thames, once a scuzzy seaport is now an ultra-chic strip of land replete with art galleries and fancy condos.  A similar transformation has occurred recently in New York with Manhattan’s regenerated Seaport.  Buenos Aires, ironically referred to as South America’s “Big Apple,” is no different.

Puerto Madero, a trade stop abandoned only two decades after its completion in 1890, is where old and new now Buenos Aires merge.  Separated from the mainland by a series of dykes that eventually connect up with the Rio de la Plata ("river of silver" - though it looked more gold to us), the Puerto Madero arts district has shed its bygone seafaring sensibility in favor of high style and design.

Perhaps the most striking element of the neighborhood, at least initially, is the Puente de la Mujer bridge, the newest link between the east and west docks of Puerto Madero.  The "Women's Bridge," designed by Santiago Calatrava and completed in 2001, features a single mast with cables that suspend a portion of the bridge that can be rotated 90 degrees to allow for passage of water traffic!  Ingeniously, when the bridge swings open for boats, the far end comes to a resting point on a stabilizing pylon.  Sadly, we did not get to see this transpire while we were there!  Still, there was much else to explore in the nouveau design district that, in only a few years, has transformed itself into the hip playground favored by rich businessman and international travelers alike.

Check out that series of old warehouse silos dotting the skyline!  Left in ruins for more than 100 years until entrepreneur Alan Faena dreamed up a new purpose, the odd-shaped buildings were gutted in 2005 to house trendy restaurants, vibrant art galleries, and perhaps the feather in the Puerto Madero’s cap, the Faena Hotel + Universe, a whimsical joint project between Faena and designer Philippe Starck (see “digs”)!

The many condos that are sprouting up along the neighborhood’s streets, all of which are named after women, are testament to the fact that Puerto Madero is now the go-to place for those looking to embrace the future of this burgeoning Latin American country.  Do yourself a favor and check it out!

Set of Drifters tip:  Soccer (or shall we say fútbol) is obviously very important in South America, and games are played in neighborhoods across the city.  On our way back into town from Puerto Madero, we were lucky enough to capture a few fleeting moments of a game played by young locals.  It’s all part of the vibe kids!