Going native in Buenos Aires

Breaking one of our golden travel rules we arrived in Buenos Aires late evening. The darkness creating an eerie feel to a grungy graffiti covered street that was going to be home for the next couple of weeks. After the taxi sped off we had an uneasy few minutes hoping that our host had heard the doorbell. There was an audible sigh of relief when the front door open.

What lies behind the green door?

Julie and I had decided that we wanted to spend our time in Buenos Aires living like a porteño or as close as we could get. Porteño meaning Buenos Aires local. To do this we had to live, speak, eat and hang out with the locals. To live like locals we rented an Air BnB apartment in the San Telmo suburb. Our first choice gone, we ended up in a slightly larger than needed 2 bedroom unit. The rooms themselves were a mish-mash of colour and art, not unlike the streets surrounding us.  Once home to the very rich, the area has been left to decay over the last couple of decades. The grand old buildings covered in graffiti and street art. The narrow cobbled streets home to the usual street dogs. There are heaps of antique and secondhand shops. The locals now less rich in money but more rich in character giving San Telmo a hippie kind of feel. 

To eat like locals we headed out to a restaurant called Los Laureles. A recommendation from our host, Mercedes, for a night of tango. One thing that we struggled to get our heads around was the tradition of eating very late. In fact, most Argentines don't eat dinner until 10.00pm, if not later. The restaurant was humming, a three piece band playing in the corner and lots of the porteños dancing the tango. There were people of all ages and at a guess from all walks of life. Late in the evening, there was a presentation to some old boy who looked like he was getting a life-time achievement award. When we left after midnight there were still people arriving for dinner.

On Sunday in San Telmo, there is a huge arts, and craft market that stretches for several blocks. Dotted through the market are food stalls, street performers and tango dancers. The main square, Plaza Dorrego the sought after spot for the top dancers. Lots of cash-rich tourists waiting to be parted from their pesos. The couple we saw glided across the makeshift dance floor. Style oozing out of every flick and dip.

The next step in going native was to learn the lingo. We had enrolled at the Ibero Spanish School no more than 10 minutes walk from our apartment. So Monday morning Julie and I joined the locals on the mass migration to work and school. Now one thing we learned about South America is that people walk incredibly slowly. It drives you nuts. We have tried on occasion to drop down a gear or two and mooch along. But we just cannot walk that slowly, it always feels like you are going at a million miles an hour compared to the locals.

At the Spanish School, Julie and I were separated. Julie has done a bit of study on her own and had attended a few night classes so was put into an intermediate group.  Julie's classmate was a quiet Irish lady.  Not having tried Spanish at all I was in the nursery class on my own with a teacher that spoke next to no English.  After 3 hours of study each day we were ready for lunch; fresh empanadas grabbed from the local bakery. The last day of school was a blast with girls versus boys at Spanish Pictionary. Yes, the girls won hands down and were rewarded with tiny bars of dulce de leche.

Spanish School Pictionary

Everybody at the school from teachers to students where friendly and relaxed.  Peter, an Irish guy who has been living in Buenos Aires for 12 months, is the school's social media guru and party organiser.  Exchanging his talents for Spanish lessons. 

Peter also gave us a vital lesson on the local currency. If you withdraw money from the ATM (limited to A$1,000 pesos at a time), you get the official exchange rate. But there is also the Blue exchange rate, which gives you approximately 25% more pesos for your pound/dollar. Using an online service called Azimo we traded some £’s for pesos at the blue rate. 

After school, we made our way to the nearest office to collect our cash. We spent the best part of 4.5 hours queuing before being ushered into a small office. With the necessary paperwork completed, we with left with our pockets stuffed full of pesos. Using this service saved us approximately NZ$600, well worth the hours of waiting. 

The queue to exchange money for the blue pesos.

The first of Peter's social events was an Electric Tango show. Only Julie, I and Peter rocked up for this one. The venue was an old warehouse down a side street. The whole place had a feel to it and quickly filled up with the local hip brigade. The show was a 12 piece band, including 4 accordion players, double bass, several violins, piano, drums and one very sultry but angry singer, doing her best Lorde impression. Not quite what we expected given that it had tango in the title. Once you have heard one heavily laden accordion song you have heard them all. But we still had a good night.

Rock n Roll Buenos Aires style

This being Argentina there are a lot of references to Eva Peron everywhere you go. Our second social event had a much better attendance. We joined our fellow students for drinks and dinner at Peron Peron Bar, a shrine to Eva Peron. The evening punctuated every 40 minutes by the playing of La Marcha Peronista (Peronists anthem). This brought the porteños to their feet, banging the tables and singing as loud as they could.

We had dinner at the Jueves a la Mesa a closed door restaurant. This is where somebody cooks in their home and you request an invite via Facebook. We found one that specialised in vegetarian food and was in San Telmo. Our fare this evening, Indonesian food, prepared by Meghan (from America) and Sofi (from Costa Rica). Our fellow guests gathered from France, the States, England and Germany. Not exactly a porteño experience but still wonderful evening.  

Wonderful homemade food at Jueves a la Mesa

To get under the skin of Buenos Aires, Julie and I would spend most of our afternoons and weekends wandering various parts of the city. One occasion we wandered into the Presidential Palace just in time for a guided tour, all in Spanish. On another, we walked the trails of the Reserva Costanera Sur Ecological catching glimpses of the city through the greenery of the park. We stalked the streets of some of the more up-market neighbourhoods like Palmero and Recoleta. Visiting the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. We explored the Museum of Modern Art (MAMBA), which included a living exhibition; a work of art that was a human revolving door. And we found some neat places to hang out, drink and eat.
You can't go a day or two without stumbling upon a protest of some description. Often the streets are closed off by small fires whilst the locals vent about workers rights.

In Buenos Aires we attended our very first opera. Splashing out on tickets for Exlicir del Amor at the grand old lady that is the Teatro Colon. This spectacular building both inside and out is one of the top attractions in the city. When we say splashed out we mean we went for the cheapest tickets we could buy. These were standing tickets in the nose bleed section six floors up. Still we had an amazing view with subtitles in English and Spanish kindly provided by the theatre.

The wonderful old lady, Teatro Colon

Julie and I both loved Buenos Aires. We came as close as we could to living like a porteño. It was great to have some kind of routine with our daily Spanish classes yet we still managed to explore much of the city.

Next Stop, the natural wonders at Iguazu and the Pantanal.