Existence is misery, Buenos Aires Street Art

Buenos Aires is a veritable smorgasbord of street art. There are hotspots to be found in Palermo, La Boca and San Telmo, but you can find street art, large and small, almost anywhere in the city. There is a vibrant mix of street artists, the majority of whom seem to be home grown with foreign artists added to the mix. The effect on the city is huge, with artworks frequently found covering whole buildings. Given the global nature of street art, and competition between cities, Buenos Aires must be in the street art premier league.

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

I’ve been fascinated with urban art of the more or less illicit type for years, ever since I moved to Hoxton in London, the former stomping ground of Banksy. While much street art in Buenos Aires definitely falls into political and socio-economic categories, there is also plenty that is purely decorative. Businesses commission works to promote hotels, restaurants, bars, galleries and boutiques. It makes for a melting pot of messages and styles, freedom of expression seems paramount.

The city authorities have actively promoted street art in recent years, but even without that support life is made easy for artists as they only need the permission of a buildings owner to create a work. It explains why there are so many massive artworks dotted around. If there is a lot of political work, there is also a lot that is whimsical and surreal, not to mention out-and-out baffling. This is Argentina, so it’s also no surprise to come across the country’s most famous number 10s, Maradona and Messi, adorning walls – especially in La Boca.

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Street art has been around in Buenos Aires since the mid-20th century, largely used to promote political parties – as it still is today, occasionally with stencils handed out to political cadres. A decade of military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s extinguished free speech and crushed freedom of expression, but there was a slow flourishing in the wake of the overthrow of the junta. Street art in the city came of age in opposition to the financial crash of 2001 which dispossessed millions. The city still seems to be riding that wave today.

The sheer scale of work makes walking through the city an exercise in discovery, where street art reveals itself at almost every turn. There are plenty of companies providing tours to some of the more famous works, but I enjoyed stumbling across pieces of art by chance. Given the transitory nature of an art form designed to have no permanence, randomly exploring a city that has transformed itself into an open air street art gallery seems fitting.

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Street art, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street art, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

A stroll through central Buenos Aires

The central business and political district of Buenos Aires, the Microcentro, is not an area that is famed for its exciting nightlife or buzzing street life. What it lacks in terms of excitement, it makes up for in grand monuments and architecture celebrating the glory years of Argentina’s past. Leaving the once glamorous cobbled streets of San Telmo behind we strolled northwards, weaving our way towards Plaza de Mayo and the home of Argentinian presidents past and present, the Casa Rosada.

Our route passed Avenida Paseo Colón, and the neo-classical Faculty of Engineering building with imposing Doric columns. The Faculty building was built in the mid-1950s and was intended as the headquarters of the Eva Peron Foundation. Her death, and the overthrow of her husband’s government, saw it given to the Faculty in 1956. For all its  grandeur, we hadn’t come here to see the building. In the square opposite is one of the city’s more dramatic public sculptures: fourteen bronze figures dragging a huge rock called Canto al Trabajo (Ode to Labour).

Canto al Trabajo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Canto al Trabajo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Obelisco, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Obelisco, Buenos Aires, Argentina

English Tower, Buenos Aires, Argentina

English Tower, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Plaza de Mayo is the epicentre of power in Argentina and, on the day we arrived, it was looking very underwhelming. The area was being dug up and the fencing surrounding the Casa Rosada had been defaced with graffiti. Nearby is the Metropolitan Cathedral where religious power resides. It’s newly famous for being the former home of Pope Francis, currently making headlines in Latin America for all the wrong reasons. Almost next door is the former colonial government building, the pre-independence seat of power, now the Museum of National History.

Strolling up the grand Avenida Presidente Roque Sáenz Peña brought us to one of the most famous sights in Buenos Aires, the 67.5 metre tall Obelisco. Sitting in the middle of the Avenida 9 de Julio, which at 140 metres wide is the widest street in the world, the Obelisco celebrates Argentina’s independence from Spain in 1816. It may be one of the best known symbols of Argentina, but it wasn’t always popular. In 1939 the mayor of Buenos Aires gave orders to have it demolished. The intervention of the national government was needed to save it.

Avenida 9 de Julio is a major transport hub, so we jumped on a bus towards the Retiro train station and the delightful Plaza San Martin. Opposite the train station is the Torre Monumental, better know until the mid-1980s as the English Tower, a redbrick clock tower presented to the city by the British to celebrate the centenary of Independence in 1916. The tower is a symbol of the complicated and intertwined history that Britain and Argentina share.

It celebrates the migration and financial investment that flowed from Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, but became an obvious symbol of protest against Britain in the 1980s following the Falklands/Malvinas War. Buenos Aires had many such symbols of British influence, like the English Tower most were renamed during the nationalist fervour that followed the war. Pointedly, facing the English Tower a short stroll away are both the Plaza de Malvinas and the Monument to the Fallen in the Malvinas.

Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Museum of National History, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Museum of National History, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Floralis Genérica, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Floralis Genérica, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Floralis Genérica, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Floralis Genérica, Buenos Aires, Argentina

We walked uphill through the Plaza San Martin towards the Recoleta, where we took a table under a giant rubber tree at the Café La Biela, a Buenos Aires institution with a suspiciously British-looking phone box outside its entrance. Jorge Luis Borges was just one of the famous patrons of La Biela and it’s worth taking a look at the old-fashioned interior. Refreshed we walked through a park to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which had an interesting Joan Miró  exhibition, before ending on a bench reflecting on this complex city at the reflecting pool of the glorious Floralis Genérica.

Exploring the faded grandeur of San Telmo

I have a soft spot for Buenos Aires’ San Telmo barrio. It was the first place I stayed on my first ever visit to Argentina a dozen years ago. I loved its cobbled streets, historic buildings, lively bars, good restaurants, old churches and pleasant plazas. A return visit was long overdue, and I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with the fading grandeur and bohemian vibe of the city’s oldest barrio. Although it’s a bit of a tourist trap, visiting on a Sunday during the Feria de San Telmo, is worthwhile for the energy and entertainment that it brings to the area.

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Part antiques fair, part tourist kitsch with tango dancers and stalls selling knick-knacks, the Sunday market is a lot of fun. It has certainly grown in size since I was last here, the stalls now spread several blocks outwards from its central hub, Plaza Dorrego. It was a hot day and walking the busy streets soon worked up a thirst, so we headed to Bar El Federal for a drink and to drink in some history. Dating from 1864, El Federal is one of the most historic and atmospheric bars in the city, and a legendary San Telmo haunt complete with an antique wooden bar and friendly staff.

Refreshed, we headed back into the streets and made our way towards Plaza Dorrego. In the square a group of tango dancers were just getting going so we joined the crowd that had gathered to watch. Amidst the whirl of activity in the area, there were others playing music, doing puppet shows and mime artists performing. We made our way to the Iglesia de San Pedro Telmo, an imposing early 18th century Jesuit church. It was a Sunday so there was a service. We stood at the back to view the church interior, the calm church and buzzing streets were polar opposites.

The area was the early home of sailors and dockworkers, as well as those working in a range of other industries. No surprise then that the church and the barrio are named after a 12th century Patron Saint of seafarers, San Pedro González Telmo. A working class, industrial area whose population often suffered very badly in times of economic hardship, the arrival of public works such as gas mains saw it go upmarket in the 19th century. Most of San Telmo’s grandest houses date from that period.

A cholera epidemic in 1881, led to the flight of wealthy residents to newer northern barrios and San Telmo slipped into decline. The newly empty mansions were converted into tenements to accommodate a wave of new and poor immigrants from Europe who arrived between 1890 and 1930. New arrivals from Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia and Britain made the area’s cobbled streets some of the most multicultural in the city. The area was poor but vibrant which attracted artists and musicians, giving it the bohemian reputation for which it’s still famous.

Bar El Federal, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bar El Federal, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bar El Federal, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bar El Federal, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Protest music in the streets of San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Protest music in the streets of San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street music, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street music, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Next on our exploration of the area was the Mercado de San Telmo, an indoor market designed by Juan Antonio Buschiazzo, an Italian architect who was also responsible for designing the Recoleta Cemetery. It has a lovely wrought iron and glass interior atrium, which is now a national monument. Built in 1897 as a fruit and vegetable market, it’s a stylish addition to the barrio. Today, there are still produce stalls dotted amongst more modern additions: trendy food stalls, bars, coffee shops, antique stalls and a bakery. It’s an interesting place to wander, and to have a snack.

When we came out of the market, we meandered through the surrounding streets. We  came across an alternative feria where the local community had gathered to listen to music, eat and drink, while demanding improved job opportunities for a better future. It was a reminder that, even while cocktail bars and boutique hotels slowly colonise these historic streets, at heart San Telmo is still a working barrio with an edge. I hope that history isn’t be lost in a new wave of gentrification.

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street entertainer, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street entertainer, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Amongst the angels in the Recoleta Cemetery

Anyone who has ever watched the BBC series Dr. Who and is familiar with the Weeping Angels, will understand the trepidation someone might feel visiting the Cementerio de la Recoleta. The Weeping Angels, also known as the Lonely Assassins, are alien killers as old as the universe itself. They’re also one of the most terrifying and dangerous foes Dr. Who has ever faced. If observed, Weeping Angels instantly turn to stone and cannot be killed but, if you blink or turn your back on them just for a second, they will kill you in an instant.

Weeping Angels look just like many of the statues in the Recoleta Cemetery. It’s not a big leap of imagination to wonder, as you wander around, whether any of the angel statues are about to spring to life and get you. I may have an overactive imagination, but so exquisitely carved are the statues that they have an unnerving lifelike quality. The lovely bronze statue of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak in her wedding dress (she died on her honeymoon), is just one example. Her family added a pretty lifelike statue of her dog, Sabú, when it died as well.

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

The Recoleta was once outside the city of Buenos Aires, and began life when a convent was built on the site in 1732. When the religious order was disbanded in 1822 the site was converted into the city’s first public cemetery, but the cemetery you see today is the result of remodelling in 1881. There are some 6,400 tombs inside the Recoleta’s walls, with architectural styles ranging from Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic and Baroque, and from small and personal to immense and grandiose. It’s a spectacular place to explore.

This is where the great and the good of Argentinian society will spend eternity, and the cemetery is packed with the famous, rich and powerful. There are no fewer than 26 Argentine presidents buried here. As are Isabelle Colonna-Walewski, grandchild of the Emperor Napoleon; Independence War hero, Irish-born Admiral William Brown; Latin America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Carlos Saavedra Lama; Luis Federico Leloir, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; the Wild Bull of The Pampas, boxer Luis Ángel Firpo; not to mention the most famous of them all, Eva ‘Evita’ Perón.

Eva Perón’s tomb is the most visited in the whole cemetery. Strangely, given her fame, it’s one of the more subdued tombs to be found here. In 1955, Evita’s embalmed corpse was removed by the military after a coup against her husband. Her corpse spent two years hidden in Buenos Aires before being buried anonymously in a cemetery in Milan, Italy. It was then returned to her husband, who was in exile in Spain. Finally, her body was returned to Argentina in 1974. Today, it’s buried five meters down under tonnes of reinforced concrete to prevent its removal a second time.

Perhaps the most tragic death of any person buried in the Recoleta is that of ‘the girl who died twice’. One night in 1902, 19-year-old socialite Rufina Cambeceres died suddenly while going to the theatre. She was brought to the cemetery and her casket was placed in her family crypt and a funeral held. The following day a cemetery worker discovered that the casket had moved in the night and feared grave robbers had tried to open it to steal jewellery she was wearing. The casket was opened.

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Inside, Rufina was dead and the casket lid had scratches gouged into it, her arms and legs were covered in bruises – she had been sealed into the casket while still alive. The theory is that she may have had a medical condition that induced a comatose-like state, making it seem to the three doctors who examined her that she was dead. The idea of her blind panic waking up inside a coffin is the stuff of nightmares. Luckily, her story may well be a ghoulish myth. What isn’t myth is her beautiful Art Nouveau tomb, with a life-size and lifelike statue of her opening the crypt door.

Her’s is just one of many gloriously extravagant tombs in the Recoleta. Walking around you come across the most extraordinary monuments to the dead but, amongst all this opulence, the nicest thing about spending an hour or two here is simply unearthing the small details that have been delicately carved into marble or cast in bronze. It’s a little like spending time in an open air museum, albeit a bit of a creepy one.

Tomb of Rufina Cambeceres, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of Rufina Cambeceres, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of José C Paz, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of José C Paz, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, social history and tourist traps

La Boca is a colourful place that comes with a fascinating social history, but visit today and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d wandered into a weird working-class theme park. The ‘La Boca’ that most people would recognise, and most tourists visit, is made up of the Boca Juniors football stadium, La Bombonera, and the colourful streets of brightly painted ramshackle houses, tango dancers and tourist trap restaurants, El Caminito. The rest of La Boca is a rough and ready working-class district, one of the poorest in the capital.

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bus loads of tourists visit daily to glimpse this historic working-class barrio that has become a cultural reference point for the nation. As a consequence, the area has been transformed into a tourist ghetto. In neighbouring streets the reality of modern-day poverty goes unseen, because it’s just too dangerous for tourists to walk around the area outside El Caminito. A tourist might, on occasion, be unfortunate enough to be liberated of their wallet, but I doubt the local community sees much tourism money.

La Boca has always been an immigrant area, it was Buenos Aires’ original port and the first place most new arrivals would see when they reached Argentina from Europe. In the 1830s a huge number of migrants arrived from Italy, the majority from the Genoa region. They washed ashore in La Boca, changing the barrio and Argentinian society for ever. Later in the 19th century, they were joined by waves of migration from Ireland, Spain, Germany and other European countries. European’s have now been supplanted by economic migrants from Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru and further afield.

The majority of new arrivals were (and are) poor, and they built their homes from whatever scrap materials they could find, including the corrugated metal sheets that can still be seen in the area. They painted their houses with leftover paint, bequeathing La Boca the vibrant colours and bohemian flavour it’s famed for today. Amidst these crowded streets, and the melting pot of cultures and languages, tango is said to have been born (although there are rivals for that crown).

The port of La Boca provided employment and the area was one of the most populous in the city. Disaster arrived in the shape of Puerto Madero, a new port further to the north that opened at the turn of the 20th century. People migrated to other areas in the city and La Boca entered a period of decline. A revival of sorts began in the 1950s driven by local artist, Benito Quinquela Martín. He convinced people to start painting their houses in the bright colours of the first immigrants, and promoted dance, music and theatre.

Bus to La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bus to La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

After lobbying by Martín and others, the city declared the streets of El Caminito an open air museum in 1959. It’s been drawing tourists ever since, although I imagine its evolution to modern-day tourist trap wasn’t the original plan. That’s not to say that La Boca isn’t worth visiting. It’s still an interesting place, with a couple of outstanding museums and galleries in the vicinity. The Proa gallery overlooks the river close to El Caminito, it had an Ai Weiwei exhibit when we were there, including Forever Bicycles outside the entrance.

We wandered the area for a while, stopped for a snack and watched tango dancers entertaining the crowds, before jumping in a taxi to La Usina del Arte. The taxi driver somehow managed to massively overcharge us for the short journey. The Usina was opened a few years ago in the old Italo Argentina de Electricidad building, which was an operational electricity plant until 1997. Today, the 7,500m2 space houses theatres, exhibitions and even a 1,200 seat symphony hall. It’s worth visiting if you’re in the area, especially if afterwards you can snag a table at the legendary restaurant, El Obrero, just around the corner.

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Rainbow car, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Rainbow car, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Forever Bicycles, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Forever Bicycles, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, where tango royalty is buried

I’d say that the Chacarita Cemetery is hidden away in a quiet and untouristy corner of Buenos Aires, but at 95 hectares this is less a cemetery and more a city of the dead. It’s so huge – the more famous Recoleta Cemetery would fit into Chacarita eighteen times over – that there are roads to take you to its most far flung corners. Its size makes it all the more remarkable that, before a chance discovery that tango legend Carlos Gardel is buried here, I’d never heard of the Chacarita.

It’s not just the size of the cemetery that makes it special though. Its mausoleums and monuments rival those of the Recoleta for their grandeur and beauty; and, while it may not have the sheer number of luminaries that the Recoleta houses for all eternity, fame has left its mark on Chacarita. There are a number of tango glitterati, including pianist, Carlos di Sarli; bandoneon player, Aníbal Troilo; composer, Osvaldo Pugliese; vocalists Ada Falcón and Sofía Bozán; one of the pioneers of tango, Ángel Villoldo; and Carlos Gardel himself.

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Memorials to Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Memorials to Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Finding the final resting place of these greats of tango isn’t exactly easy. There are no maps of the cemetery and no signage once you’re there. We’d walked through the up-and-coming Villa Crespo area to get there and, instead of arriving at the very grand main entrance, we found ourselves at the back entrance. There was no information available, but a nice security guard pointed us in the right direction for Gardel’s tomb. Twenty minutes later we were lost amongst a maze of tombs no closer to finding it than when we were at the entrance.

The dead don’t need shade and a fierce sun was beating down on us as we wandered hopelessly around. Occasionally we’d see people in the distance, but there was no one to ask for help and there were no signposts. We walked to the main entrance and unearthed one of the cemetery’s staff. Our new set of directions led us back into the maze and we were again lost within minutes. We spotted a couple of camera carrying tourists chatting to a gardener. We followed them and finally found the right place.

The upside of being lost was that we’d accidentally wandered around a sizeable part of the cemetery, although lacking a map of the tombs we had no idea which tombs we were seeing. There was no mistaking Gardel’s tomb though, if for no other reason than there was a man from Chile dressed as Gardel having his photo taken next to it. This is a common occurrence apparently, and if you come here on Gardel’s birthday there are dozens of people doing the same.

The Chacarita Cemetery started life in the 1870s thanks to a Yellow Fever epidemic that put the rest of the city’s cemeteries under enormous strain. The new cemetery took the overflow and it grew over the next 140 years to become the largest in the country. Unlike the Recoleta, anyone can be buried here, poor and rich, famous and anonymous. There are even British and German sections dating from the 19th century – they aren’t marked and we couldn’t find them.

Jorge Newbery's tomb, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jorge Newbery’s tomb, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jorge Newbery's tomb, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jorge Newbery’s tomb, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

The cemetery is popular with actors, film stars, musicians, sports people and dancers. Alfonsina Storni, one of Latin America’s most important poets is buried here; as are prima ballerina, Norma Fontenla; José María Gatica, the nation’s most famous boxer; and aviation pioneer, Jorge Newbery, after whom one of the city’s airports in named. Newbery’s monument is extraordinary. There are several former Argentine Presidents and military dictators here, including Leopoldo Galtieri, who ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas in 1982.

We spent a few hours wandering the cemetery, it’s a remarkably peaceful place in the bustling city. Eventually, the heat and lack of shade got the better of us and we decided to head back to Palermo for some lunch. Our visit to Chacarita had been eye-opening though. While Recoleta may be easier to navigate, if you have time to spare it’s well worth making the effort to explore it.

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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.

Carlos Gardel art, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Carlos Gardel art, Abasto, 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