Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Happy reunions in Buenos Aires

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The next stage of my ride would be Colombia-Ecuador-Peru (my ride is split in two to take advantage of the seasons and to make sure that I’d be in Patagonia in summer time). To fly to Cartagena, I had the choice to fly via Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires. That decision was a no-brainier as Buenos Aires would also give me the chance to catch up with Pipa & Connie and Fred:).

The National Congress building in central Buenos Aires

Whistle-stop tour of Buenos Aires

I had three days in the centre of Buenos Aires to do my ‘touristy’ thing and get to know the city a little bit, before meeting up with the others. The first thing that amazed me was just how young the city is versus the impression it gives. Buenos Aires was first founded in 1536 by a Spaniard Pedro de Mendoza. It was very quickly abandoned again though, following a number of attacks by the indigenous population and due to a failure to find any of the resources that the Spaniards were interested in (namely gold and silver). The government back in Spain soon decided to stop funding further development so the explorers continued on further up the coast (and ultimately founded Asunción – now the capital of Paraguay).

A new group of settlers came back at the end of the 16th century, but for nearly 200 more years Buenos Aires remained a backwater due to trade restrictions imposed by Spain. A port was built and it became a centre of activity for smugglers. As the population grew, Spain became more interested again, however the town council of BsAs cut ties with Spain in 1810. Decades of wrangling for power continued both with Spain and with other nearby regions, eventually resulting in Civil war. The city finally declared full independence and was made capital of Argentina in 1880.

It’s only really then that the city really started to flourish – less than 140 years ago! Huge agricultural exports fuelled a boom time and made many porteños (citizens of BsAs) extremely wealthy. Many of the rich built huge French and Italian style mansions, based on classical architecture from 200 years or more earlier. This is why the city appears so much older than it is, yet has some wide boulevards and elements of town planning that you don’t see in European cities that have evolved organically through these centuries.

Old (but not quite as historic as they appear!) buildings in the originally wealthy districts of Recoleta, Retiro and the Micro-Centre

‘La Casa Rosada’ with the balcony where Eva Perón famously addressed crowds of Argentinians below. The main square in front is now an ongoing site for public demonstrations, including from mothers campaigning to find out the truth about family members who were disappeared during Argentina’s brutal, and still alarmingly recent (’76 – ’83), military dictatorship.

On a walking tour of this part of the city, you hear a lot about wealth, greed, love, hate, revenge and so-on, all bubbling away in the melting point of the huge growth seen in BsAs in the 19th and 20th centuries. This building below – now the Argentinian Foreign Office I believe – has a fantastic story behind it. Hopefully I can remember it correctly…

The Foreign Office

..There were three extremely wealthy dowagers in Buenos Aires who ran business empires and were constantly competing with one another. Between them they were the largest donors to the Catholic Church during their time. One of them built this house in the style of a traditional French chateau, as a grand show of wealth and status.

Her eldest son started a relationship with the daughter of an Irish trader (let’s call her Caroline), but the dowager didn’t approve of her son being involved with a more lowly family. She sent her son away to go and make more money, grow their business empire and have some fun in the process. The shallow son duly complied and soon forgot Caroline. But Caroline was a feisty young woman and far less forgiving. Caroline’s father became increasingly wealthy. When he died, Caroline came into a large inheritance. She cashed it all in…

In the meantime, the dowager had built a church to house the family crypt. She could see the church from her house, looking out across the Plaza de San Martín. To get her revenge, Caroline bought a piece of land in front of the church and built a huge, modern, Manhattan-style apartment block. The dowager’s house represented the past, Caroline’s apartment block made a statement of being forward-looking. (As an aside, the most expensive apartment to ever sell within Buenos Aires is in this block). The back of the apartment tower faced the church and it completely blocked the line of sight from the dowager’s house. Caroline had her revenge and basically sent the dowager a big ‘up yours’.

From the picture of this house though, you get the idea of the huge wealth in BsAs during these years.

Fred and I at the cemetery in Recoleta – also home to many stories and famous individuals. The most famous being the final resting place of Eva Perón (how her body eventually reached this cemetery is also an astounding and convoluted tale – too complex to write here, but I strongly recommend checking it out if you don’t already know about it).

One of the famous murals of Eva Perón – still extremely prominent along the main avenue in the centre of town

The beautiful Rose Garden. I am constantly amazed by how insanely plants and trees grow in South America compared to back home.

La Boca

All these agricultural exports needed lots of dockers to work the ports. And so the barrio (district) of ‘La Boca’ was formed and with it developed BsAs’ multi-cultural background and the birth of the tango. In the 19th century, thousands of immigrants from Spain and Italy, along with many others from the Caribbean and countries further up the coast, arrived to work in the port. Most worked in the meat packing plants and tanneries. This part of the city would have been very poor and must have smelt really, really bad.

The dockers had very little and used whatever second-hand wood and corrugated iron they could get their hands on to build their homes. They gave them a lick of paint using anything left over from the ships to protect them from the sun and rain. Never having enough paint for a whole building lead to this colourful patchwork that has become so famous today.

Old docker houses in La Boca

Following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, BsAs’ economy collapsed. Combined with the subsequent construction of a new port, La Boca spiralled into decline. The artist Benito Quinquela Martín was born in La Boca and having become very successful did a lot of philanthropic work and building to help the people who lived there. He helped revive the culture of decorating the buildings in brightly coloured paint (the colours you see today are based on his colour palette, not on those originally used by the dockers, which was basically whatever they could get their hands on). This helped make La Boca an interesting place and contributed to its revival within the city.

Statue of the artist Benito Quinquela Martín.

The tango is said to have originated in La Boca and in the port in nearby Uruguay in the late 1800s, starting with its roots in the Argentina ‘Milonga’ along with other influences from Cuba and Africa. Allegedly, the ‘dance’ was originally very much a blue-collar affair between pairs of immigrant men down at the docks and resembling the moves of a fight (which is where the leg flick ‘trip up’ moves come from in the tango) where they tried to outwit one another. It then progressed to the brothels, where the ‘winner’ would get the pick of the ladies. From there it became a way for the dockers to woo the local women.

The tango gradually became more popular as it spread from the working-class slums and out to the suburbs. In 1920, the bandoneon (that looks similar to an accordion) was introduced to Buenos Aires from Germany, and became a core instrument in tango music. In the early 1900s, the tango started to take off in Europe. The music became slower and more intricate, and so the French ‘sexed up’ version of the Tango came into being.

In the meantime, in the 1930s the Tango went into decline in Argentina following the Great Depression and the economic withering of the city. The tango only became fashionable again in the 1950s under the government of Perón. The Tango declined yet again in the same decade, with continuing economic recession and the banning of public gatherings by the subsequent military dictatorships.

The dance continued in smaller venues until it was revived in the 1980s following the opening of a number of Tango-based shows in Europe and on Broadway.

Now, pairs of tango dancers can be seen entertaining the crowds along the central street of La Boca – El Caminato – and the nearby surrounding restaurants. It’s a huge tourist trap, and the performances and hawkers reminded me a bit of the street artists in Soho, but some of the dancing is still amazing to watch.

I went to a (pretty commercial, but still interesting) tango show that demonstrated the origin of the Tango being ‘fought’ between two men

And the evolution of this to the passionate Parisian-style Tango that most of us think of today

La Boca is still a very poor barrio of BsAs, and some streets are off limits. Nevertheless, there are plenty more interesting things to see there:

I spotted a sculpture near the docks that was unmistakably by Ai WeiWei. Of course, being made with bicycles I had to take a picture. I visited the exhibition of his work (at least my fourth exhibition by him!) at Fundación Proa, a world-class contemporary art museum right by the docks.

The view over the docks from the museum

Traditional paintings on the walls of some of the houses, depicting the histories and folklore of some of the original immigrant community

There’s lots of graffiti (often politically motivated) lining the streets – this one centres on people from La Boca who were disappeared, sometimes by being thrown out of a plane to fall to their death.

A more lighthearted piece – learn the steps of the tango by practicing in the street

La Bombonera (‘The Chocolate Box’) of the Boca Juniors football team and home of Diego Maradona (‘Juniors’ because British railway workers originally brought football to Argentina via the port here. For this reason it isn’t uncommon for South American football teams to include English words in their names).

San Telmo

San Telmo, lying between the micro-centre and La Boca, was my favourite barrio in central Buenos Aires. One of the first rich districts of the city, it has narrow cobbled streets, low-storied colonial houses and a feel of classic faded glory. It was a rich and sophisticated area, but following a bout of Yellow Fever in the late 1900’s, the rich moved out to the area now known as Recoleta. A lot of the older mansions were then subdivided into tenements, to hold a family in every room, and in time artists and bohemians looking for cheap rent also moved in. The area is now dotted with antique stores from the quirky to the high-end, and with up and coming foody stalls. It has a relaxed atmosphere and the narrow shady streets and small squares (often containing locals practicing tango) dotted about make it a pleasure to stroll around without any particular destination in mind.

This old mansion has been turned into a home for alternative hand craft stalls and a quirky antique furniture shop

There is a covered market with great artisanal food stalls and a number of collectors shops on the periphery

Friends who matter

After running round like a mad woman trying to see as much of Buenos Aires as I could, the real highlight began with a fantastic few days with Fred then with Pipa, Connie and their girls in their beautiful home in Tigre in the north of the city. Days of catching up, being treated to some amazing food and wine, messing about with the kids out on a lake, and just generally enjoying the warmth of being in the company of good friends. Soul strengthened, I headed off to the airport for the next stage of my ride.

Fred and one of the phenomenal dinners he arranged for us

Hanging out with Pipa, Connie, and their wonderful girls

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