Argentina beckoned us south from Lima, both because we are following summer and because we needed to be in Buenos Aires for a Norwegian cruise through Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego that is leaving in early January. It helped that we also found an apartment downtown that let us stay put for the whole hectic the holiday travel season.
It was a bit shocking to arrive from Lima. Both cities are massive and still growing but Lima felt chaotic and sprawling awhile Buenos Aires feels calmer and shows off a more distinctly European influence. Main avenues in our neighborhood in B.A. tend toward tree-lined and cafe-dotted. People seem like to take life a little slower, they mosey and chat on the sidewalks. Many buildings look as though they were transplanted from Paris or Rome. Car horns are rare in comparison to Lima.
Our first couple days gave us time to see places high on our list. For me, El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore was a minor pilgrimage site. It lives up to its name; shelves of books, music, and movies run through four floors of a former theatre. Ceiling frescoes and theatre boxes (now reading nooks), as well as the stage (a small cafe), are all preserved. The Argentine and Latin American authors sections are incredible, running through all the names I’ve heard of and so many more I haven’t… if only my Spanish was better.
Catching a sea breeze on the waterfront is the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve. Several miles of trails next to some of the city’s newest development is a welcome escape from the traffic and noise. We saw and heard groups of bright green parrots, herons, and some kind of diving bird catching fish, even as skyscrapers were visible through the trees. The center is a marsh full of reeds. Signs warning against feeding the critters; apparently snakes still make this their home, and it wouldn’t feel out of place to find a caiman. Despite the value of having this so close to downtown, I wonder what percentage of the mosquitoes in our apartment have their beginnings here.
Buenos Aires’s most famous landmark might be their city of the dead, Recoleta Cemetery. Here are the tombs of the most famous Argentinians. Eva Peron, dozens of Presidents (they have a history of going through them quickly), artists, politicians, bankers, and athletes are buried in grand mausoleums. Simply carving names in stone would be too easy; the cemetery is a space for sculptors to show their skills making angels and likenesses of the dead. Some wealthy men have a penchant for statues of beautiful women mourning their passing. Tombs have windows of stained glass, domes, wrought iron gates. Many have lower levels, visible down tiny staircases, that are stacked with coffins. It is eerie and poignant at the same time.
The Catedral Metropolitana of Buenos Aires has a massive Neoclassical facade, and all the interior trappings you’d expect of an important Catholic church. It has received a lot of attention over the last few years since their last Archbishop is now the Pope. I especially like the tile work on the floor that has flowers and crowns of thorns. In altars along the sides, Mary appears in several guises and is dressed in flowing gowns. Toward the back corner, a life-sized Jesus is riding a life-sized donkey. Gold and beautiful carvings are very much in evidence.
Argentina is famous for beef and wine, which naturally attracted our attention. Honestly, the reputation is very well-deserved. The cheapest steaks from the grocery store ($1.50US each) were some of the best we’ve ever eaten. And the Mendoza-area malbecs are fruity and delicious. Patagonia is fast becoming a wine region as well, but their products tend toward more mineral-tasting.
Italian influences are found throughout menus here, meaning pastas, pizzas, and pastries are staples. And also that the food is fairly bland. All the spiciness got left in Peru… There is a drink culture here as well, teas and wines are the main choices, but coffee makes an important appearance as well. Unfortunately, the local coffees are more like candy. Even bags of ground beans in the store come pre-sugared.
The most popular desserts contain dulce de leche, a milky caramel spread, and dulce de batata, a jellied sweet potato reduction. They are decent as dips and toppings for other foods, like cookies and apples, but really don’t have a super-memorable flavor of their own. Despite this, Argentina seems to be obsessed with dulce de leche – at some stores it takes up half an aisle. Pan dulce, the local fruitcake, is everywhere because of the rapid approach of Christmas. We tried the cheapest possible version, which meant they made up for putting in actual fruit with an excess of sugar and flour.
One shocking thing are the prices in Buenos Aires. We expected a higher cost of living than Lima and Mexico, because of the relative wealth of the area we are staying in and the high inflation rate. Looking at the history of the US dollar – Argentine peso exchange rate, it seemed to be going in our favor. But actually shopping for groceries was a different experience. To our dismay, prices for almost everything are Seattle-level and some things we generally consider staples (bread, pasta, frozen veggies) are actually more expensive here. And stuff – clothes, cookware, Christmas decorations – are almost universally more expensive than at home, especially if they are imported. Turns out many locals travel to Chile, Brazil, (even the U.S.!) to do their big shopping runs.
The steaks and wine are the exceptions to this, probably because these are produced locally and in large quantities. So at least we will still be dining well!