Buenos Aires, the quixotic city at the end of the world

Buenos Aires is a city that excites the imagination, a historic and cosmopolitan place at the end of the world. More has probably been written about it than other city in South America. The city’s European heritage, and grand old European architecture, crashes headlong into pulsating Latin American culture in a fusion that is both beguiling and a victim of cliche. This is the tempestuous home of tango, vivacious and vibrant, with stylish galleries, fine museums, and even finer dining; from the cobbled streets of gritty La Boca to the 19th century glamour of Palermo, fashionable barrios abound.

Street art of Tango singer Carlos Gardel, Balvanera, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tango art, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tango art, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Street art in Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Street art in Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Yet, for all its beauty, Buenos Aires is also in possession of plenty of ugliness. It’s a city still recovering from a financial crash that dispossessed millions. On my first visit here just after the crash, the city felt like a glamorous bankrupt who was trying to maintain appearances. Political and economic instability, not to mention corruption, have all left their mark on the city. Poverty, crime and homelessness are not easily ignored, even if they don’t affect tourists much. Tedious financial controls do affect tourists, and banks still ration money and charge you heavily for the privilege.

I’d spent thirteen long hours on the flight reminiscing about this most quixotic of cities,  planning what to see and do after a ten year absence. Within 12 hours of arrival, I had more mundane matters to deal with: I broke my big toe on a badly repaired sidewalk. This led to a revelation. In Buenos Aires sections of sidewalk often look like they’ve been hit by an earthquake. I’ve always wondered why, and now I know: shop and home owners are responsible for the upkeep of the sidewalk in front of their building. Many don’t bother to carry out much needed repairs.

For someone who loves to explore on foot, and had planned some hiking in the Andes, a broken toe wasn’t good news. At least soaring summer temperatures in the city meant I could wear flip-flops. We based ourselves in an apartment close to Plaza Immigrantes de Armenia in Palermo. The twenty or thirty blocks panning out from here are home to some of the city’s best restaurants, quirky galleries, trendy bars and, the fashion of the day, microbrewery pubs. All reassuringly within hobbling distance.

Long gentrified, Palermo is a fascinating area to spend some time. There are numerous versions of Palermo – Chico, Viejo, Soho, Hollywood, Alto – estate agent Scrabble at its finest. Its mix of buzzing streets, leafy parks and lovely plazas, make it the perfect place to adjust to Buenos Aires’ pace of life while planning where else to visit. One thing not to miss is the Fola Fototeca Latinoamericana, which had an excellent exhibition of early 20th century black and white photos of Buenos Aries by Harry Grant Olds.

We visited nearby Almagro, home of tango legend Carlos Gardel and a small museum in his former house telling the story of his life and music. This includes the chance to listen to any (or all) of the 893 songs he recorded, and watch grainy feature films in which he starred. There’s an excellent documentary of the final days before his death in an air crash. The museum is in the old Abasto district, a former working class area once dominated by a wholesale fruit and vegetable market. It’s one of the birthplaces of tango.

Gardel was known as El Morocho del Abasto – the dark-haired boy from Abasto – and there are murals of him throughout the area. The district isn’t touristy, and feels a little run down, but it’s an interesting area to explore. I assumed that Gardel was buried in the Recoleta, but he’s in the less glamorous Chacarita cemetery. The newsreel footage of his funeral shows huge frenzied crowds thronging the streets. After seeing the film we decided to find Gardel’s tomb. Another revelation. The Chacarita is as magnificent as, and a lot bigger than, Cementerio de la Recoleta.

Tango dog, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tango dog, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Street art in Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Street art in Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

7 thoughts on “Buenos Aires, the quixotic city at the end of the world

  1. As a resident who had visited some other cities, I wonder why I always read people complaining about Buenos Aires sidewalks. Ever been to Rome? As for Homelessness, ever been to NY? as for poor people: ever been to Sao Paulo?
    I agree, Buenos Aires is always a victim of a constant cliche. Tourists describe Argentina as “struggling” and then are surprised about the relative prosperity of places like Colombia (whose GPD per capita is about half of Argentina’s). Never to wonder why immigrants are constantly coming over.
    It doesn’t matter if we do ok or not. We are always going to be struggling, burocratic and chaotic to the european imaginary.
    You end up seeing what you came to see.

    1. I couldn’t really ignore the broken pavements, I broke my toe tripping on one, and they are hard to miss if you spend any time walking in the city.
      I don’t disagree, Buenos Aires is no different to any other city when it comes to negatives, but it has plenty of positives to compensate.
      I wasn’t singling it out for criticism, simply pointing out that its image is often over-romanticised. If you read my other blogs about the city, you’d probably get the strong impression that I’m a fan.

  2. Fab post again Paul. B.A is going up on my list.
    Sidewalks? Same goes in Mexico. As a “trick” to spend as little public money as possible, the sidewalk is part of the property. (And taxable of course.) hence maintenance is up to the landlords. But in addition, here if you want to “repair” the sidewalk, you need to go through etenernal and infernal redtape. Can’t just hire someone to pour down cement. 😦

    1. The result is the occasional broken toe of a tourist. A friend suggested I sue the city, but I figured I’d be inside the walls of the Recoleta cemetery long before I saw justice. I hear it’s the same in BA, endless bureaucracy and the moment you repair the pavement the utility company comes along and digs it up again.

      1. Oh. I thought I’d read “broken toe” but did not understand. Are you over it yet? (No point in suing the city) I understand a broken toe can take weeks to mend?

  3. I liked this post. would liked to see the Gardel tomb. Hope your toe is better. Cheers

    1. I was going to add a photo and then I thought I’d do a post about the cemetery. It’s quite an amazing place. The toe is a lot better, thanks, and the nail has finally come off, so things are looking up!

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