Travelog: Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

First impressions can be everything. A cab ride from the airport should be a benign experience, and admittedly I had shrugged off numerous warnings about scams in my destination city.

Using the advised “official” taxi, about halfway from the airport, the car stopped. The driver got out, lifted the hood and pounded the motor. Of course that wasn’t going to get it to start. “Miraculously” another taxi pulled over and we changed cars (the driver had been on the phone just before the car stalled). This driver wanted money upfront, however. He indicated our Pesos were not authentic and showed us one with the image Eva Peron on it. Perhaps the bank had given us older notes, I thought. He wanted to see them to compare and grabbed the stack. He handed them back and proceeded to drive.

Later at the hotel we noticed the driver had replaced the 100 Peso bills with two Peso bills, except for the top bill. We informed the attendant at the hotel desk who showed us a special edition Eva Peron bill. The other bills were also authentic and more common. He said a couple from Uruguay had been the victim of a similar scam last week.

Unfortunately, he said, this sort of thing is very common in South American cities. But the whole city can’t be blamed for one bad apple.

Buenos Aires is charming. Turn of the 20th Century buildings with a variety of European influence line the main thoroughfares. Many of the sidewalks in the San Telmo district are extremely narrow and made of belgian block. These streets contrast with the wider boulevards. While bikeshare is available, this neighborhood isn’t the easiest place to cycle.

The government buildings, some dating from the 18th Century, are proud and in a variety of states of repair. Buildings this ornate can be hard to maintain.

The church doesn’t seem to be battling the forces of nature much better. Every one we entered was in some stage of restoration. These mostly seemed like minor projects that could not possibly catch up with the forces of time and wear. Yet there is certainly something to be said of older buildings (and any object really) that shows its age and isn’t in pristine “like new” condition. More than the historic jewels of wealthier nations, these are artifacts that share stories of time.

Day Two
You could walk for quite a while from the center of Buenos Aires without seeing a building not constructed between 1900 and 1920. It’s clear this was the city’s major boomtime.

For example the Teatro Colon doesn’t compare to anything from the period I know about in the United States, and hey Enrico Caruso was here. Whatever and whoever was the impetus behind this theater must have had more money than all the oil in Texas could produce. It’s still grande, but many of the surrounding buildings haven’t fared so well. Graffiti is everywhere, and nearly every building is closed up at night with steel roll doors. At a restaurant this evening the waitress offered clip latches for women’s purses to attach to the chair so they wouldn’t be taken. Some restaurants keep the doors locked. While violence is apparently rare, this kind of petty crime is all-too familiar here.

I just read a piece comparing the development of Buenos Aires to Chicago. The author covered the fact that in the late 19th Century Chicago was innovative, while Buenos Aires imported innovations. The education was also apparently superior in the Northern city. I also recall a comparison flowchart from graduate school showing more money from Europe going into South America in this period while more people went to North America. That may or may not have much to do with what I am experiencing here now.

It’s clear there were ups and downs in wealth and development from there. When you think about it, in all too similar circumstances, it might have become Detroit.

Day Three
Newer parts of the city appear quite different than the San Telmo area where I am staying. The streets are wider and join large areas of parkland. This is clearly a wealthier part of the city and somewhat resembles parts of Manhattan. Its nice to know development happened at the fringes rather than replacing the older structures. This area also appears more conducive to bicycling.

The attendant in a high-end gallery didn’t fail to warn us that motorcyclists may come along and grab bags. Though it is a nice area, the criminals apparently also know this and target accordingly.

If I lived here I would undoubtedly prefer San Telmo. When I told my partner this he asked why, the other area has high-end stores. But I don’t need high-end stores very often.

Day Four
Quite frequently ordering vegetarian here means something with bread and cream cheese. Today I noticed the first full-fledged vegetarian restaurant, but unless its open tomorrow for lunch I probably won’t get there. The coffee and wine have both been superb. A shopkeeper told us the wine is generally double the price in the restaurants. A double coffee is about the same size as a tall at Starbucks. Somehow the coffee here has a more full flavor. For some reason it always comes with a small glass of sparkling water, but water with gas is the more commonly understood translation. Perhaps the purpose iis to rinse the coffee stains away.

One great thing about Buenos Aires is it still has book stores. A huge store in an old theater in the Recoleta was phenomenal. The store at the MALBA had a huge selection of art books. Even small books stores seem to be thriving. Compact discs and vinyl records also remain popular.

The other observation I want to make is that if there is such a thing as “downtown” here, I can’t pinpoint it. The area arpound the pedestrian-only Florida Street may come close, but not exactly like downtown areas are thought of in the U.S.

The network of pedestrian-only thoroughfares is something that makes the city very liveable. The squares and parks are also numerous and charming.

While I had decidedly mediocre spaghetti for dinner, I did witness the national pastime of meat-eating. Before the meal it was suggested we have some fried cheese. The thought reminded me of Primanti’s in Pittsburgh, only this was a huge fried glop of provolone. The superior wine and coffee must be what keeps people alive here. I can’t imagine the food has much to do with that.

Day Five
I was greeted in Buenos Aires by a swindler and then dropped in a graffiti-laden area of the city. On reflection, the situation I was put in to be able to be swindled by the cab driver is directly the result of having to take an automobile from the airport. Of course as an unsuspecting tourist I might have been taken advantage of in other places. But the act happened at an exit ramp where there was no escape for a reason.

It’s also clear that the design and structure of the city, the close-in neighborhoods that facilitate human interaction have saved this city in hard times from hollowing out like some of the American cities, when they fell on hard times. The walkable design seems to have kept social order more-or-less intact. Is there any example of this involving auto-centric cities?

Of course a small percentage of the people here live in the areas we visited. Many mid-century apartment highrises fill the area between the city and Eziza airport. The condition seems to be comparable to buildings in San Telmo, but lack the architectural charm, scale and probably the street layout.

The aren’t so different from what was built in the U.S. or elsewhere during that period. Nor are the much more recently constructed apartment buildings in the higher-end Puerto Madero.

The advantage here is they kept the walkable, charming old city and the adjacent walkable early 20th Century city. In many U.S. cities these areas were replaced through redevelopment with auto-centric replacements.

I did make it to the Vegetarian restaurant- very pleasing!

Finally, I entered half a dozen taxi’s after the first experience, and all were pleasant. Some advice, call the hotel to send a car to the airport when you arrive. When you enter a car, make sure to not or photograph the number, company name and phone number. Inside you will also find the drivers information. If you can’t find this information, wait for another car.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me