If any city can be judged by its food, drink and music, it is Buenos Aires. Steak, red wine and the tango are all equally available across the city, and passionately enjoyed by the population. After months in the peaceful serenity of Oceania, I was ready for a new continent. It only took flying 11,000km across the Pacific to get there.
I have a curious liking of long haul flights. Maybe it’s the endless selection of terrible blockbuster movies, or the supply of drinks available. It’s generally best not to focus on your meal in too much detail, but expectations for cuisine can’t be too great when you’re a 6 miles high in the sky.
In any case, landing in Buenos Aires was quite the wake up from the easy journey. There was an immediate brace of business upon entering the city. The city is separated in a grid-like shape, where multi-storey houses tower high like any European capital. Traffic packed itself onto the wide roads that intersect the centre as well as the narrow streets. Weaving bikes would seem to dangerously flirt with the cars at every junction. Maybe I was just too used to the safe and highly controlled cities of Australia and New Zealand.
I had moved through ten time zones from Auckland to Buenos Aires, but after an evening of red wine I managed to force myself into a slumber. I surprisingly woke at the correct time at breakfast ready for my first full day. It was spent exploring the affluent centre of the city, where the richest families lived in houses of grandeur (now generally owned by government or transformed into luxury hotels), alongside grand statues and well-preserved buildings.
With a turbulent past of colonialism and civil conflict, the country is rich with history and culture. During the late 19th century when Argentina flourished and immigrants were openly invited, people from all over Europe journeyed south in the hope of a better life. Buenos Aires became a vibrant mix of ethnicity. The high proportion of Italian immigrants left it’s mark on the Argentinian accent, as well as the flamboyant Italian gesticulation that can still be seen by locals today.
As a complete contrast to the city centre, the port district of Boca was next on the list. Boca is distinctly painted in bright colours, with every house and shop give its own design. Being the old shipyard and immigrants quarter, everything is tightly squeezed together on narrow alleyways and cobbled paths. Now filled with gawping tourists, restaurants, and Diego Maradona lookalikes (who you can be photographed with for a small fee), the district has certainly lost it’s authentic local bustle. It still, however, remains a beautiful place to wander and there definitely remains an intimacy that existed when the district became flooded with those looking for a new life in Argentina.
Along with the port neighbourhoods of Montevideo, the tango was birthed by immigrants in Boca and later popularised in Europe and across South America (after initially being viewed as the dirty dance of the working classes). Today, it can be witnessed by performers in restaurants, and by locals at tango bars by night (alongside the clumsy attempts by tourists).
Other days were generally spent admiring the city, and evenings spent enjoying the newly founded craft beer movement that had struck the shores of South America with similar enthusiasm to which it has been felt in the rest of the western world. The nation is truly carnivorous, mainly due to the vast population of cows in the country. Asados (barbecues with various assortments of grilled meat) are very popular, and I was introduced to the idea by my hostel on my third night. I tried to hide my excitement at the prospect of unlimited meat and wine, but I couldn’t hide my appetite after weeks of basic meals in New Zealand. My plate was continually refilled with delicious cuts of beef and pork after all others were slumped back in their chairs defeated, and I actually ate enough to be given a round of applause and the title “Hostel Hero”. Quite an honour if I say so myself.
Following Buenos Aires, I crossed the Río de la Plata and border into the city of Colonia del Sacramento of Uruguay. Colonia is one of Uruguay’s picturesque cities, sitting quietly on the riverfront with the metropolis of Buenos Aires on the other side. Stony paths are lined by pastel-coloured buildings, which are generally no more than a single storey, with tall windows and an oversized wooden door. The streets were easy to walk through, with the exception of occasional rainfall that forced everyone indoors.
Uruguay feels like a smaller a slightly slower version of Argentina, with nothing too special happening but a perfectly pleasant and relaxed place to be. Even Uruguayans are first to admit that Uruguayan time runs slightly slower than anywhere else, and lateness to events are to be expected by all. The capital, Montevideo, holds over half of the modest population, but still doesn’t come close to the raucous nature of other South American cities.
Uruguay in general appears to have a much quieter life than it’s South American neighbours too. Within Latin America, it is ranked first for democracy, quality of living, literacy, least corruption, freedom of press, and is 100% powered by renewable energy. The population is outnumbered 4 to 1 by cows, which is why everyone is encouraged to hold regular asados.
Montevideo’s “Old city” holds much of the grander architecture, with buildings growing as you approach from districts further away. From there, you can be guided along the coastal boardwalk towards other areas of town filled with bars, seafood restaurants and random shops. Empanadas, a pastry filled with meat, cheese and vegetables that looks similar to the British pastie, is my main form of nourishment in Uruguay. It wasn’t long before I had lost count of how many I had eaten as they were always readily available on most street corners.
Having entered the continent without ever actually speaking a word of Spanish to someone, I was slowly picking up phrases and the basic structure. My main tactic was to watch movies with Spanish subtitles, and slowly decipher the language. Probably not the swiftest method to learn but certainly one of the most enjoyable (I hadn’t watched the Lord of the Rings in years, anyway). Buenas noches.