Buenos Aires Travel Guide
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Of all South America’s capital cities, Buenos Aires – aka Capital Federal, Baires, BsAs or simply BA – has the most going for it. Seductive and cultured, sophisticated yet earthy, eclectic but with a strong identity, it never bores, seldom sleeps and invariably mesmerises its visitors. Influenced by the great European cities, Buenos Aires nonetheless has its own distinct personality enhanced by proud traditions, including football, tango and mate. Travellers who visit Buenos Aires will very quickly experience the modern and traditional charms of Argentina's capital city.
On one flank lap the caramel-hued waters of the Río de la Plata, the world’s widest estuary: signs of BA’s regained prosperity include the wharves stacked high with containers and the ever-busier cruise-ship terminus. To the west and south, the verdant Pampas – historically the source of the city’s food and wealth – meld seamlessly into its vast suburbs.
Modern Buenos Aires enjoys an incomparable lifestyle. Elegant restaurants, glamorous bars, historic cafés and heaving nightclubs, plus a world-class opera house, countless theatres, multi-screen cinemas, avant-garde galleries and French-style palaces all underscore its attachment to the arts and its eternal sense of style. Its proud inhabitants, known as Porteños, are notoriously extravagant and well-groomed but they are also hospitable and eager to show visitors around. Another boon is the parks and gardens and the abundance of trees lining the streets and providing shade in the many lively plazas that dot the huge conurbation; they add welcome splashes of colour, particularly when ablaze with yellow, pink and mauve blooms in spring and, in some cases, autumn, too. The squadrons of squawky parrots and vociferous songbirds that populate the greenery help visitors forget that this is the fifth-largest conurbation in the Americas: there are nearly fourteen million inhabitants in the Gran Buenos Aires area, which spills well beyond the city’s defining boundary of multi-lane ring roads into Buenos Aires Province Dropdown content. Discover everything you need to know about Buenos Aires with our travel guide.
On the map and from the air the metropolis does look dauntingly huge, yet the compact centre and relative proximity of all the main sights mean that you don’t have to travel that much to gain an overview. Of the city’s 48 barrios you will most probably be visiting only the half-dozen most central. The city centre (basically San Nicolás and Monserrat) is mostly a hectic place, particularly during the week and along pedestrianised Calle Florida, but the fin-de-siècle elegance of Avenida de Mayo and the bohemian café culture of Avenida Corrientes offer a contrasting atmosphere. Beyond the converted docklands of Puerto Madero, east of downtown, lies the unexpectedly wild Reserva Ecológica, one of the city’s green lungs.
The older south of the city begins just beyond the central Plaza de Mayo Dropdown content. The narrow streets are lined with some of the capital’s finest architecture, typified by late nineteenth-century townhouses with ornate Italianate facades. Increasingly gentrified, San Telmo is primarily known for its cutting-edge artists, lively antiques fair and touristy tango haunts, while resolutely working-class Boca, further south, is so inextricably linked with its football team, Boca Juniors, that many of its buildings are painted blue and yellow. The north of the city is leafier and wealthier; you can ogle the French-style palaces of Retiro, stay in one of the top-end hotels of Recoleta or head to Palermo to shop or dine or just to wander the streets. Most of the city museums are clustered in the northern barrios, with themes as varied as Latin American art, mate cups and Eva Perón.
Buenos Aires was named in honour of Nuestra Señora de Santa María de los Buenos Ayres, provider of the good wind, the patron saint of the Spanish sailors who first landed on the banks of the Río de la Plata estuary in 1516. The first successful settlement came in 1580, but though the Spanish found the horses and cattle that they brought over from Europe thrived, the fertility of the land made little impression on them. They were more interested in precious metals, and named the settlement’s river the Plata (silver) in the belief that it flowed from the lands of silver and gold in the Andes.
Expansion was slow, however, and Buenos Aires remained a distant outpost of the Spanish-American empire for the next two centuries, with smuggling being the mainstay of the local economy. In 1776, in an attempt to shore up its empire, Spain gave the Argentine territories Viceroyalty status, with Buenos Aires as the capital. It was too little, too late: boosted by the defeat of two attempted British invasions, the people of the Viceroyalty declared independence in 1810, freeing the area from the last vestiges of colonial hindrance.
The industrial revolution gave Buenos Aires the opportunity to exploit and export the great riches of the Pampas, thanks to technological advances such as railways and refrigeration – which enabled Europeans to dine on Argentine beef for the first time. Few cities in the world have experienced a period of such astonishing growth as that which spurred Buenos Aires between 1870 and 1914. Massive foreign investment – most notably from the British – poured into the city and Buenos Aires’ stature leapt accordingly. European immigrants, over half of whom were Italians, flocked to the capital, and the city’s population doubled between 1880 and 1890. Most of the old town was razed and an eclectic range of new buildings went up in a huge grid pattern. The standard of living of Buenos Aires’ middle class equalled or surpassed that of many European countries, while the incredible wealth of the city’s elite was almost without parallel anywhere. At the same time, however, much of the large working-class community endured appalling conditions in the city’s overcrowded conventillos, or tenement buildings.
By the mid-twentieth century the period of breakneck development had come to a close as the country slid into political turmoil and economic crisis. In September 1945, Buenos Aires saw the first of what was to become a regular fixture – a massive demonstration that filled the city centre. Rallies of almost religious fervour in support of Perón and his wife Evita, who came out onto the balcony of the Casa Rosada to deliver their speeches, followed at regular intervals until Evita’s death and Perón’s deposition. The long years of military dictatorship that followed saw the city in lockdown, with the mothers of the disappeared one of the few visible signs of the turmoil underneath the surface. Since the return to democracy in 1982, Buenos Aires has been the most visible face of the country’s economic rollercoaster. The temporary stabilisation of the currency in the 1990s brought a new upsurge in spending by those who could afford it – smart new shopping malls, restaurants and cinema complexes sprung up around the city. But Buenos Aires entered the twenty-first century in retreat, as a grinding recession led to weeks of protests and looting that came to a horrendous head in December 2001, when widespread rioting led to dozens of deaths. Demonstrations and roadblocks by unemployed piqueteros became part of the fabric of everyday life in the city during the messy recovery that followed, with the sad sight of cartoneros rooting through rubbish the most obvious example of the economic problems, and growing crime an inevitable offshoot of this rise in poverty.
As the focus of national bicentenary celebrations in 2010 – and despite some backwash from the global financial crisis – Buenos Aires is mostly in good shape. Long overdue repairs have been carried out, welfare plans have reduced (though not eradicated) the worst poverty and international tourism continues to be an engine of growth, leading to the opening of new gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels every week. Problems remain – traffic, crime, shantytowns, flooding in big storms, power outages and the still frequent roadblocks – but Buenos Aires seems confident of its future.
Buenos Aires is well served by numerous international and domestic flights. It is also a transport hub for the rest of the country, with frequent daily bus services to and from most towns and cities. Limited train services join the capital to the provinces, while fast and slow ferries cross the Río de la Plata to neighbouring Uruguay.
Buenos Aires may seem like a daunting city to get around, but it’s actually served by an extensive, inexpensive and generally efficient public transport service – albeit not the world’s cleanest, quietest or most modern. The easiest part of this system to come to grips with is undoubtedly the underground rail system, or subte, which serves the city centre, the north and the west of the city. You may also want to familiarize yourself with a few bus routes, as buses are the only form of public transport that serves the outlying barrios. However, as taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap, you’ll likely find them the most convenient means to get around.
Buenos Aires’ popularity with international visitors means that many of the city’s best accommodation – at all levels – is frequently full. With around half of all the country’s hotels in the capital, you will always be able to find somewhere to stay, but if you’re fussy about where you lay your head, you’re advised to reserve in advance. At the budget end, there are dozens of hostels, mostly cheerful, well-run places in converted nineteenth-century mansions. If you baulk at dormitory living, consider a private room at a hostel or a costlier but homely B&B, which tend to be a better deal than the city-centre budget and mid-market hotels, many of which can be dull at best, grim at worst. The city has also seen a surge in upmarket boutique hotels, altogether more pleasant (though naturally more expensive) places to stay, catering principally to international visitors and scattered throughout the central neighbourhoods. The label boutique can be misleading, as anywhere else; often it just means small and vaguely trendy, but is no guarantee of comfort or quality of service. Wherever you spend the night, a fan or air conditioning is really a requirement in summer, and heating a big plus in winter. Discounts can sometimes be negotiated, particularly if you are staying for more than a few days, but note that credit cards may entail a surcharge. Breakfast is not always included at the budget hotels, but in any case you’ll probably get a better start to the day in a nearby confitería.
There’s a superb range of cultural events on offer in Argentina’s capital, ranging from avant-garde theatre to blockbuster movies and grand opera with a wealth of options in between. One of the best features of Porteño cultural life is the strong tradition of free or very cheap events, including film showings at the city’s museums and cultural centres, tango and a series of enthusiastically attended outdoor events put on by the city government every summer; street performers are also of very high quality.
Venues offering live music, including folk, jazz, tango and rock, are scattered all over the city and differ enormously in style and ambience, though the quality is invariably high. For gigs by local bands, check the Sí supplement in Clarín on Fridays and the Buenos Aires Herald’s arts section. As well as larger venues like Luna Park or the outdoor GEBA, international stars often play at football stadiums, particularly River Plate’s Monumental – these gigs are widely advertised and best booked through a ticket agency. Smaller venues generally sell tickets on the door. If folk music is your thing, check out folkloreclub.com.ar. For information on classical music and opera performances. Websites with worthwhile dance clubs and live music listings include vuenozairez.com, wipe.com.ar and buenosaliens.com.
Tango has gained a whole new audience in recent times, with an increasing number of young people filling the floors of social clubs, confiterías and traditional dancehalls for regular events known as milongas. Even if you don’t dance yourself, it’s still worth going to see one: the spectacle of couples slipping almost trance-like around the dancefloor is a captivating sight. Apart from the skill and composure of the dancers, one of the most appealing aspects of the milonga is the absence of class – and, especially, age – divisions; indeed, most younger dancers regard it as an honour to be partnered by older and more experienced dancers.
While the setting for a milonga can range from a sports hall to an elegant salon, the structure – and etiquette – of the dances varies little. In many cases, classes are given first. Once the event gets underway, it is divided into musical sets, known as tandas, which will cover the three subgenres of tango: tango “proper”; milonga – a more uptempo sound; and waltz. Each is danced differently and occasionally there will also be an isolated interval of salsa, rock or jazz. The invitation to dance comes from the man, who will nod towards the woman whom he wishes to partner. She signals her acceptance with an equally subtle gesture and only then will her new partner approach her table. Once on the dancefloor, the couple waits eight compases, or bars, and then begins to dance, circulating in a counter-clockwise direction around the dancefloor. The woman follows the man’s lead by responding to marcas, or signs, to indicate the move he wishes her to make. The more competent she is, the greater number of variations and personal touches she will add. Though the basic steps of the tango may not look very difficult, it entails a rigorous attention to posture and a subtle shifting of weight from leg to leg, essential to avoid losing balance. The couple will normally dance together until the end of a set, which lasts for four or five melodies. Once the set is finished, it is good tango etiquette for the woman to thank her partner who, if the experience has been successful and enjoyable, is likely to ask her to dance again later in the evening.
Watching real tango danced is the kind of experience that makes people long to do it themselves. Unfortunately, a milonga is not the best place to take your first plunge; unlike, say, salsa, even the best partner in the world will find it hard to carry a complete novice through a tango. In short, if you can’t bear the thought of attending a milonga without dancing, the answer is to take some classes – reckon on taking about six to be able to hold your own on the dancefloor. There are innumerable places in Buenos Aires offering classes, including cultural centres, bars and confiterías and, for the impatient or shy, there are private teachers. If you’re going to take classes, it’s important to have an appropriate pair of shoes with a sole that allows you to swivel (no rubber soles). For women, it’s not necessary to wear heels but it is important that the shoes support the instep. At a milonga, however, a pair of well-polished heels is the norm, and will act as a signal that you are there to dance. Any woman going to a milonga, but not intending to dance, should make that clear in her choice of dress and footwear; go dressed to kill and you’ll spend the night turning down invitations from bemused-looking men.
For all its parks and tree-lined avenues, Buenos Aires is nonetheless predominantly urban, and it can be nice to get away from the hectic tumult for a day or two.
Immediately surrounding the city limits as you cross the Avenida General Paz ring road, the Capital Federal spreads into greater Buenos Aires. Largely residential, the most appealing suburbs are those to the city’s north – the Zona Norte, an affluent suburban world of riverine villas where the subtropical heart that lies beneath Buenos Aires’ European veneer starts to show through. Most worth visiting is San Isidro, which preserves a villagey charm and worthwhile historic quarter that can be accessed via the Tren de la Costa or taxi. Further on, but still easily in day-trip territory, you will reach Tigre, a kind of cross between Venice and the Everglades, at the edge of the verdant Paraná Delta.
To the east of the city, meanwhile, boats cross the Río de la Plata to the small Isla Martín García, a steamy island that appears to have walked off the pages of a children’s adventure story. Once used as a penal colony, it is now mostly given over to a nature reserve (visits via Cacciola Turismo in Tigre). You can also reach the Portuguese colonial historic town of Colonia in Uruguay or even visit pleasant Montevideo, the capital of Argentina’s rioplatense neighbour – both destinations are served by Buquebus, whose ferries and catamarans depart regularly from Puerto Madero.
Go a little further beyond the city in any other direction and you will swiftly emerge in the emerald green pampas, Argentina’s heartlands. Magnificent estancias (farmsteads or ranches) and traditional Pampean villages are close enough to reach as a day-trip, though if possible they really warrant at least one overnight stay. The capital of Buenos Aires Province Dropdown content, La Plata Dropdown content, an orderly city with a large, old-fashioned natural history museum, is also only an hour or so on the bus from Retiro.
Buenos Aires is Latin America’s gastronomic capital and, with many places offering excellent quality for the price, eating out here must count as a highlight of any visit to Argentina Dropdown content. In addition to the ubiquitous pizza and pasta restaurants common to the country as a whole, the capital offers a number of cosmopolitan cuisines, ranging from Armenian and Basque to Thai and Vietnamese. Foodie fashions are enthusiastically adopted; Peruvian haute cuisine and mini-gourmet restaurants in the intimate space of someone’s house are currently all the rage. The city’s crowning glory, however – though you have to be a meat-eater – are its parrillas, whose top-end representatives offer the country’s choicest beef cooked on an asador criollo – staked around an open fire. There are plenty of humbler places, too, where you can enjoy a succulent parrillada in a lively atmosphere.
If you’ve come to Buenos Aires eager to experience the city after dark you will not leave disappointed. Porteños are consummate night owls and though nightlife peaks from Thursday to Saturday, you’ll find plenty of things to do during the rest of the week too. Worthwhile venues are spread all over the city, but certain areas offer an especially large selection of night-time diversions. The city’s young and affluent head to Palermo’s Soho and Hollywood to strut their stuff year-round, and the Costanera Norte as well in the summer. El Bajo, as the streets around Reconquista and 25 de Mayo are known, offers a walkable circuit of bars and restaurants as well as the odd Irish pub, while San Telmo harbours some eclectic and charismatic bars in among the tango spectacles. Though some bars open all day, most don’t really get going until around midnight. Increasingly, the smoother bars run so-called after offices on weekdays to fill the early evening slot, but these are almost invariably rather sleazy.
Shopping in Buenos Aires is a pleasure unmatched elsewhere in South America. While goods tend to be more Western and familiar than those you will come across in, say, Bolivia or Perú, you can nonetheless count on finding some highly original items to take home. The best handicrafts are found in their home provinces rather than in Buenos Aires, but if you miss out on your trip around the country there are good craft markets in the capital. Typically Argentine goods include mate paraphernalia, polo wear, wine and world-class leatherware. A box of widely available Havanna alfajores makes a good present, or take a jar or two of dulce de leche away with you to satisfy cravings. Opening hours are usually around 10am–7pm Monday to Friday, with stores closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday.
A sometimes chaotic mix of old-fashioned cafés, grand nineteenth-century public edifices, high-rise office blocks and tearing traffic, Buenos Aires’ city centre exudes energy and elegance – though it can be shabby and downright dingy in parts. Its heart is the spacious, palm-dotted Plaza de Mayo, the ideal place to begin a tour of the area and explore its historical and political connections; its mismatched medley of buildings includes the famous Casa Rosada, or government house. An amble westwards from the plaza will take you along Avenida de Mayo, the city’s major boulevard, offering an impressive display of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. At its western end, Avenida de Mayo opens onto the Plaza del Congreso, presided over by the Congreso Nacional building, the seat of the federal parliament.
From Plaza del Congreso, Avenida Callao will take you northwards to Avenida Corrientes. Now a busy commercial artery, Corrientes was famous in the twentieth century as the hub of the city’s left-leaning café society. Though there’s less plotting going on here today, it’s still the place to get some culture, lined as it is with no end of bookstores, music shops, cinemas and theatres. A short detour north from Corrientes will take you to Plaza Lavalle, a long, grassy square most notable for the magnificent opera house that looms over its eastern edge, the regal Teatro Colón.
East from Plaza Lavalle, you’ll hit the jarring and enormous Avenida 9 de Julio – the city’s multilane central nerve. Presiding at its heart is the stark white Obelisco, a 67m stake through the intersection of avenidas 9 de Julio and Corrientes. Crossing east over 9 de Julio, you head into a densely packed and busy block known as the microcentro (the Argentine term for downtown), whose two main streets are pedestrianized Lavalle and Florida, where you’ll be swept along by a stream of human traffic past elegant galerías (arcades) and stores of every kind. Buenos Aires’ small financial district – called, in homage to London, ‘‘La City’’ – makes up the southeast corner of the microcentro, while to the northeast sits the quieter “El Bajo”, home to yet more downtown bars and restaurants.
Running parallel to Avenida de Mayo, four blocks north of Plaza Congreso, Avenida Corrientes is one of the city’s principal arteries, sweeping down to the lower grounds of El Bajo. It’s not so much the architecture that is of note but the atmosphere generated by its bustling mix of cafés, bookstores, cinemas, theatres and pizzerias. For years, cafés such as La Paz, on the corner of Corrientes and Montevideo, and the austere La Giralda, two blocks west, have been the favoured meeting places of left-wing intellectuals and bohemians – and good places to observe the Porteño talent for whiling away hours over a single tiny coffee.
Corrientes’ bookstores, many of which stay open till the wee hours, have always been as much places to hang out in as to buy from – in marked contrast to almost every other type of shop in the city, where you’ll be accosted by sales assistants as soon as you cross the threshold. The most basic places are simply one long room open to the street with piles of books slung on tables and huge handwritten price labels, whereas the leftish, alternative Liberarte at no. 1555 and its ilk take literature more seriously. Almost as comprehensive as the bookstores are the street’s numerous pavement kiosks, proffering a mind-boggling range of newspapers, magazines and books on subjects from psychology and sex to tango and politics.
An amble west from Plaza de Mayo Dropdown content takes you along one of the capital’s grandest thoroughfares, Avenida de Mayo, a wide, tree-lined boulevard flanked with ornamental street lamps and offering a stunning ten-block vista between Plaza de Mayo and Plaza del Congreso. Part of an 1880s project to remodel the city along the lines of Haussmann’s Paris, Avenida de Mayo is notable for its architectural melange; many of its buildings are topped with decorative domes and ornamented with elaborate balustrades and sinuous caryatids. Unimpressed with the city’s European pretensions, Borges called it one of the saddest places in Buenos Aires, yet even he couldn’t resist the charm of its confiterías and traditional restaurants, a handful of which remain open.
Argentina is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, currently estimated at around 185,000, although this is around one-third of its peak figure in the 1950s, since when many have migrated to Israel, Europe and the United States. The majority live in Buenos Aires; the more well-to-do in Belgrano, and the lower middle classes in Once. The latter is where you’ll find most of the city’s kosher restaurants, especially on the streets around Pueyrredón between Córdoba and Corrientes. Approximately eighty synagogues dot the city, including the large Central Synagogue, along with more than seventy Jewish educational institutions.
The first Jewish immigrants arrived in Argentina in the early seventeenth century but were officially excluded from colonial society by the Spanish authorities. Following independence Jews were openly allowed to settle and began moving in from France and other Western European countries in the early nineteenth century; Jewish refugees later fled here in large numbers from pogroms and persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, and were commonly known as “rusos”, a term still often used erroneously to refer to all Jews (two-thirds of whom are Ashkenazi).
In 1938 the foreign minister under President Ortiz signed an infamous circular that effectively instructed Argentine consulates not to issue visas to Jews seeking asylum from Nazi Germany. Perón’s government was one of the first to recognize the State of Israel, but he openly admired Mussolini, covertly hampered Jewish immigration and notoriously allowed Nazi war criminals to settle in Argentina, including Adolf Eichmann, an SS officer who masterminded the systematic massacre of Jews in Central Europe. In 1960 Eichmann was abducted from a Buenos Aires suburb, where he worked for Mercedes Benz, by Mossad and Shin Bet agents and whisked off for trial and execution in Jerusalem.
The Jewish community was the target of two of the country’s most murderous terrorist attacks: a bomb explosion at the Israeli Embassy in 1992, in which 29 people died, and another at the headquarters of AMIA, the Argentine Jewish association, in 1994, which killed 85 people. In 2006, Argentine prosecutors officially accused the Iranian government and Hezbollah of ordering the bombings, a charge Teheran adamantly denies, but the crimes have never been properly resolved. A monument in Plaza Lavalle remembers those who lost their lives in both attacks – another in the Plaza Embajada de Israel, at the corner of Arroyo and Suipacha, Retiro, focuses on the loss of life in the 1992 atrocity, with one lime tree representing each victim.
More water than dry land, Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires’ newest and glossiest barrio, centres on a defunct port directly to the east of the historical centre. Here four enormous oblong diques, or docks, run parallel to the Río de la Plata, connecting on either side to the Dársena Sur (Southern Harbour), near Boca, and the Dársena Norte (Northern Harbour), near Retiro, from where ferries depart for Uruguay. Lining these docks – which are officially numbered one to four, Dock One being the most southerly – are a series of preserved and restored brick and iron warehouses, originally used to hold grain from the Pampas before it was shipped around the world. By 1898, before the port was even fully finished, it was already insufficient in scale to cope with the volume of maritime traffic, and a new port was constructed to the north. For most of the twentieth century, Puerto Madero sat as a forlorn industrial relic, but in the 1990s private money was injected and it began to be converted into a voguish mix of restaurants, luxury apartments and offices. While this dockside development is decidedly upmarket and somewhat lacking in colour, it’s nonetheless a relaxing place to stroll, and there are far worse ways to spend a lazy summer afternoon than sitting on a terrace here, sipping a clericó, watching the yachts bob on the water and enjoying the gentle breeze off the river. Docks Three and Four host the pick of the barrio’s restaurants and bars.
The Reserva Ecológica is a strange but wonderful place, a fragment of wild and watery grassland stretching for 2km alongside the Costanera. Having self-seeded with grassland after the landfill project was abandoned in 1984, the reserve offers a juxtaposition of urban and natural scenes, whether factory chimneys glimpsed through fronds of pampas or the city skyline over a lake populated by ducks and herons. Inside the reserve, near the entrance, the visitors’ centre displays panels explaining the park’s development and serves as the starting point for ranger-guided walks along the park’s many trails. Full-moon nocturnal tours (weather permitting) allow you to spot all manner of creatures, mainly birds, which keep a low daytime profile. There is a surprising diversity of flora and fauna in the park, with over two hundred species of bird visiting during the year. Aquatic species include ducks, herons, elegant black-necked swans, skittish coots, the common gallinule and the snail hawk, a bird of prey that uses its hooked beak to pluck freshwater snails out of their shells. The park is also home to small mammals, such as the easily spotted coypu, an aquatic rodent, and reptiles such as monitor lizards. The reserve’s vegetation includes the bright red ceibo, but the most dominant plant is the cortadera, or pampas grass.
Described by Borges as “an older, more solid world”, the south is where Buenos Aires best preserves its traditions. Immediately south of the Plaza de Mayo lies the barrio of Monserrat, packed with historic buildings, churches and a couple of noteworthy museums. Heading south through Monserrat, you’ll emerge into the cobbled streets and alleyways of San Telmo, where grand nineteenth-century mansions testify to the days when the barrio was home to wealthy landowners. San Telmo is best visited on a Sunday, when its central square, Plaza Dorrego, is the scene of a fascinating antiques fair, although there are plenty of antiques stores also open during the week. At the southern end of the barrio, there’s the tranquil Parque Lezama – a good spot for observing local life, and home to an important history museum. Beyond Parque Lezama, and stretching all the way to the city’s southern boundary, the Río Riachuelo, the quirky barrio of La Boca is a great place to spend an hour or two, wandering its colourful streets and soaking up its idiosyncratic atmosphere.
More than any other barrio in Buenos Aires, Boca (or “La Boca”) and its inhabitants seem to flaunt their idiosyncrasies. Located in the capital’s southeastern corner, this working-class riverside neighbourhood has been nicknamed the “República de la Boca” since 1882, when a group of local youths declared the barrio’s secession from the country. Even today, its residents – many new immigrants from other South American countries – have a reputation for playing by their own rules and are most famous for their brightly coloured wooden and corrugated-iron houses. The district was originally the favoured destination for Italian immigrants, and the colours of the houses derive from the Genoese custom of painting homes with the paint left over from boats. Boca’s other most characteristic emblem is its football team, Boca Juniors, the country’s most popular club and probably the most famous one abroad.
Named after the boca, or mouth, of the Río Riachuelo, which snakes along its southern border, Boca is an irregularly shaped barrio, longer than it is wide. Its main thoroughfare is Avenida Almirante Brown, which cuts through the neighbourhood from Parque Lezama to the towering iron Puente Transbordador that straddles the Riachuelo. Apart from some excellent pizzerias, there’s little to detain you along the avenue: the majority of Boca’s attractions are packed into the grids of streets on either side. Even then, there’s not a great deal to see as such, and unless you plan to visit all the museums an hour or two will suffice; morning is the ideal time to go, when the light best captures the district’s bright hues and before the tour buses arrive.
Be warned that Boca remains a poor neighbourhood and has an unfortunate reputation for crime, with muggings a fairly common occurrence. There’s no need to be paranoid, but it is advisable to stick strictly to the main tourist district and follow the advice of the police who patrol the area; keep expensive watches and cameras out of sight.
The true heart of Boca is Boca Juniors’ stadium, La Bombonera. Built in 1940, it was remodelled in the 1990s and the name – literally “the chocolate box” – refers to its compact structure; although Boca has more fans than any other Argentine team, the stadium’s capacity is smaller than that of most of its rivals. This is the place where many of the country’s best young players cut their teeth before heading to Europe on lucrative deals – the Bombonera’s most famous veteran is Diego Maradona, who retains a VIP seat at the stadium. Seeing a game here is an incredible experience, even for non-soccer fans.
Just inside the stadium entrance, there’s a large painting by famous local artist Benito Quinquela Martín entitled Orígen de la bandera de Boca (“the origin of Boca’s flag”), which illustrates one of the club’s most famous anecdotes. Though the exact date and circumstances of the event are disputed, all agree that Boca Juniors chose the colours of its strip from the flag of the next ship to pass through its then busy port. As the boat was Swedish, the distinctive blue and yellow strip was selected.
Around the stadium, a huddle of stalls and shops sell Boca souvenirs while, on the pavement outside the stadium, stars with the names of Boca players past and present, some featuring their footprints, were laid as part of the club’s centenary celebrations in 2005. Some of the neighbouring houses have taken up the blue and yellow theme, too, with facades painted like giant football shirts.
Few people have captured the imagination of the Argentine public as much as Diego Armando Maradona. A bull of a player with exceptional close control, balance and on-field vision, the diminutive no. 10 was the finest footballer of his generation and arguably of all time – though the latter title is now seriously contested by his compatriot, Lionel Messi. Born in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Maradona’s playing career (1976–97) was peerless. He made his first-team, first-division debut for club Argentinos Juniors in 1976, when he was just 15. Maradona wore the colours of seven clubs in total, including Boca Juniors, Barcelona and, most famously, Napoli, where he is still venerated as the player who brought southern Italy’s poorer brother glory and silverware. He also led Argentina to win the World Cup in 1986, a campaign that included one of the most celebrated of all World Cup games, the quarter-final played against England, just four years after the South Atlantic conflict. Maradona scored two goals, including the infamous “Hand of God” goal, in which he tapped the ball in with his hand, and a second, legitimate goal considered to be one of the finest ever scored.
Like many geniuses, though, Maradona was flawed – in his case, by the excesses of alcohol and, particularly, drugs. He was suspended in 1991 for testing positive for cocaine, and then again for the banned substance ephedrine during the 1994 World Cup. After a low point in 2004 where he was hospitalized following a cocaine-induced heart attack, he bounced back to host his own talk show in 2005, where guests included Pele and Maradona’s friend Fidel Castro. In 2008 he surprised many when he took over as coach of the Argentine national side and during qualifications for the 2010 World Cup was strongly criticized for his tactics (or lack of them) – which led him to more notoriety, this time when he launched an obscenity-laden tirade against the press following Argentina’s qualification. He lost his job after a humiliating 4-0 defeat by Germany in the South Africa finals, but was soon after appointed manager of Al-Wasl FC, based in Dubai, earning €3.5 million a year.
As you wander around the city, look out for examples of fileteado or filete art, particularly on shop signs. Characterized by ornate lettering, heavy shading and the use of scrolls and flowers entwined with the azure and white of the national flag, this distinctive art form first made its appearance on the city transport system in the early twentieth century. Often associated with tango, its actual origins are a little murky, but it seems to have been introduced by Italian immigrants. Banned from public transport in 1975 – the authorities felt bus destinations and numbers should be unadorned – it moved onto signs above stores and cafés as well as more traditional canvases. Today it is synonymous with Porteño identity, particularly in the south of the city. As well as tango stars, a popular subject is the pithy saying, including the classic si bebe para olvidar paga antes de tomar (“if you drink to forget, pay first”) and the more obscure si querés la leche fresca, atá la vaca a la sombre (“if you want fresh milk, tie the cow up in the shade”).
You have to be very hard-hearted not to be seduced by the romantically crumbling facades and cobbled streets of San Telmo, a neighbourhood proud of its reputation as the guardian of the city’s traditions. A small, roughly square-shaped barrio, San Telmo is bounded to the north by Avenida Chile (six blocks south of Plaza de Mayo), to the west by Calle Piedras, to the east by Paseo Colón and to the south by Parque Lezama. Like neighbouring Monserrat, its main artery is Calle Defensa, once the main thoroughfare between the Plaza de Mayo Dropdown content and the city’s port.
The barrio’s appearance of decaying luxury is the result of a kind of reverse gentrification. When the city’s grand mansions were abandoned by their patrician owners after a yellow fever epidemic in 1871, they were soon converted into conventillos (tenements) by landlords keen to make a quick buck from newly arrived immigrants. This sudden loss of cachet preserved many of the barrio’s original features: whereas much of the north, centre and west of the city was variously torn down, smartened up or otherwise modernized, San Telmo’s inhabitants simply adapted the neighbourhood’s buildings to their needs. It’s still largely a working-class area, and well-heeled Palermo-dwellers may warn you off coming here, but the area’s superb architecture also attracts bohemians, students, backpackers and artists, from Argentina and abroad. Together with rising rents, the recent appearance of designer clothing and homewares stores among the traditional antiques shops is an indication that San Telmo may once again be going up in the world – though this latterday gentrification is not a development that everyone welcomes.
San Telmo is one of Buenos Aires’ major tourist attractions per se, particularly for its Sunday antiques market, the Feria de San Telmo, held in the neighbourhood’s central square, Plaza Dorrego; there’s usually a smaller version on Saturdays. It’s also the barrio most closely associated with tango, and the place where many of the best-known tango shows and bars have their home. At the southern end of the barrio, the small, palm-lined Parque Lezama, containing the city’s well-organized Museo Histórico Nacional, makes a restful spot to end a tour of the neighbourhood.
A combination of extravagant elegance and an authentic lived-in feel pervades the north of Buenos Aires, where the four residential barrios of most interest to visitors – Retiro, Recoleta, Palermo and Belgrano – each retain a distinctive character. Nearest to the centre, Retiro and Recoleta – known jointly as Barrio Norte – have chic streets lined with boutiques, art galleries and smart cafés, although the dockside fringes and the highly insalubrious bits near the city’s biggest train station, also called Retiro, are just as down at heel as parts of the southern barrios, if not more so. Recoleta is associated primarily with its magnificent cemetery where, among other national celebrities, Evita is buried. Both barrios also share an extraordinary concentration of French-style palaces, tangible proof of the obsession of the city’s elite at the beginning of the twentieth century with established European cities. Many of these palaces can be visited and some of them house the area’s opulent museum collections, but they are also sights in themselves.
Palermo and Belgrano, further north, are large districts composed of a mixture of tall apartment buildings, tree-lined boulevards, little cobbled streets and grandiose neocolonial houses. Many of Buenos Aires’ best restaurants and shops are here, so you should plan a visit in this direction at least once. It’s worth making a day of it to check out the beautiful parks and gardens, attend a game of polo, or to see another beguiling side of the city in, for example, Palermo Soho, a district of lively cafés-cum-art galleries.
Much of Palermo, Buenos Aires’ largest barrio, is vibrantly green and appealingly well kempt: ornate balconies overflow with jasmine and roses, grand apartment blocks line wide avenues, and plane trees, palms and jacarandas shade older, cobbled streets; its beautifully landscaped parks, some of the biggest in the world, come alive with locals practising in-line skating, playing football or walking their dogs.
Palermo takes its name from an Italian farmer, Giovanni Palermo, who in 1590 turned these former flood plains into vineyards and orchards. The barrio began to take on its present-day appearance when large parks and gardens were laid out at the end of the nineteenth century; the process of gentrification continued and Palermo is now regarded as a distinctly classy place to live.
Given its sizeable proportions – it stretches all the way from Avenida Coronel Díaz, on the border with Recoleta, to Colegiales and Belgrano, to the north – it’s not surprising that the barrio isn’t completely homogeneous. The bit of Palermo around Plaza República de Chile that juts into Recoleta is known as Palermo Chico and contains some significant museums, including the Museo de Arte Decorativo. Nearby, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) is a must for fans of modern art. About ten blocks west, Palermo Viejo is a traditional neighbourhood with lovely old houses along cobbled streets, but it’s become such a trendy place, full of funky cafés and avant-garde art galleries, that the area around Plaza Cortázar is now known as Soho. Across the rail tracks, people in the media work, eat and drink in a cluster of TV studios, restaurants and bars that have been christened Hollywood. Much of the north of Palermo is taken up by parks and gardens, such as the grand Parque 3 de Febrero, giving the area its soubriquet the ‘‘bosques de Palermo’’ (Palermo woods). At the barrio’s northern edge is Las Cañitas, a zone of upmarket bars and restaurants, focused on the corner of Báez and Arévalo.
One of the city’s best museums, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), is housed in a modern, glass-fronted, purpose-built building that is an attraction in its own right, its airy, spacious galleries contrasting with the dark nooks and crannies of the city’s more traditional art museums.
The permanent Constantini collection, on the first floor up, concentrates on the best Latin American art of the twentieth century. It is arranged chronologically, beginning around 1910, when the Modernist movement in Latin America heralded the start of a real sense of regional identity. This is exemplified in paintings such as a series by Argentine master Xul Solar, a Frida Kahlo self-portrait and Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral’s Mexican-influenced Abaporu. Dark political undercurrents run through the 1930s to 1950s and the work of Antonio Berni and the Chilean Roberto Matta, while Catholic traditions are given a Surrealist twist in Remedios Varo’s votive box Icono. Things get more conceptual from the 1960s on, with the moving installations of Julio Le Parc and the LSD-splashed “end of art” collages by the “Nueva Figuración” movement.
Upstairs, temporary exhibitions generally feature the collected works of a prominent modern or contemporary artist, often an Argentine. MALBA also has its own small art-house cinema, a café, a bookstore and a fun gift-shop.
Palermo Viejo is Buenos Aires’ most fashionable place to live, shop or have an evening out. The part of the city most closely linked to Borges, where he lived and began writing poetry in the 1920s, its architecture has changed little since then. Bounded by avenidas Santa Fe, Córdoba, Juan B. Justo and Raúl Scalabrini Ortíz, it’s a compact oblong of narrow streets, most of them still cobbled and lined with brightly painted one- or two-storey Neocolonial villas and townhouses, many of them recently restored, some of them hidden behind luxuriant gardens full of bougainvillaea and jasmine. Part run-down, part gentrified, it’s a leafy district with a laidback bohemian ambience, and many of its stylish houses have been converted into bars, cafés and boutiques. Large communities from Poland, Ukraine, Lebanon and Armenia live here, alongside an Italian contingent and some old Spanish families, and they all have their shops, churches and clubs, adding to the district’s colour. The area also boasts a dazzling blend of outstanding restaurants, serving cuisines as varied as Armenian and Vietnamese, and has succeeded in luring the city’s residents and visitors alike away from more superficial districts such as Puerto Madero and Las Cañitas.
Palermo Viejo’s official epicentre is Plaza Palermo Viejo, a wide, park-like square dominated by a children’s playground and some huge lime trees, but the barrio’s cultural and social focal point is nearby Plaza Serrano. The plaza’s official name (used on maps but unknown by most taxi drivers) is Plaza Cortázar, after Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar, who frequented this part of the city in the 1960s and set his Surrealist novel Hopscotch here. The plaza centre becomes the site of a crafts fair at weekends, while more permanently it is surrounded by trattorias, cafés and bars, some doubling as arts centres and galleries. Among them, a rash of independent designer shops sell upmarket bohemian clothes, jewellery and furnishings – hence the Soho nickname.
This city that I believed was my past,
is my future, my present;
the years I have spent in Europe are an illusion,
I always was (and will be) in Buenos Aires.
Jorge Luis Borges, “Arrabal”, from Fervor de Buenos Aires (1921)
There’s no shortage of literary works inspired by Argentina’s capital city, but no writer has written so passionately about it as Jorge Luis Borges. Though he was born in the heart of Buenos Aires, in 1898, it was the city’s humbler barrios that most captivated Borges’ imagination. His early childhood was spent in Palermo, now one of Buenos Aires’ more exclusive neighbourhoods, but a somewhat marginal barrio at the start of the twentieth century. Borges’ middle-class family inhabited one of the few two-storey houses on their street, Calle Serrano (now officially renamed Calle J. L. Borges), and, though his excursions were strictly controlled, from behind the garden wall Borges observed the colourful street life that was kept tantalizingly out of his reach. In particular, his attention was caught by the men who gathered to drink and play cards in the local almacén (a sort of store-cum-bar) at his street corner. With their tales of knife fights and air of lawlessness, these men appeared time and again in Borges’ early short stories, and, later, in Doctor Brodie’s Report, a collection published in 1970.
Borges’ writing talent surfaced at a precocious age: at 6 he wrote his first short story and when he was 11, the newspaper El País published his translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. However, it was not until he returned from Europe in 1921, where he had been stranded with his family during World War I, that Borges published his first book, Fervor de Buenos Aires, a collection of poems that attempted to capture the essence of the city. Enthused by his re-encounter with Buenos Aires at an age at which he was free to go where he wanted, Borges set out to explore the marginal corners of the city. His wanderings took him to the outlying barrios, where streets lined with simple one-storey buildings blended with the surrounding Pampas, or to the poorer areas of the city centre with their tenement buildings and bars frequented by prostitutes. With the notable exception of La Boca, which he appears to have regarded as too idiosyncratic – and perhaps, too obviously picturesque – Borges felt greatest affection for the south of Buenos Aires. His exploration of the area that he regarded as representing the heart of the city took in not only the traditional houses of San Telmo and Monserrat, with their patios and decorative facades, but also the humbler streets of Barracas, a largely industrial working-class neighbourhood, and Constitución, where, in a gloomy basement in Avenida Juan de Garay, he set one of his most famous short stories, El Aleph.
For a writer as sensitive to visual subtlety as Borges – many of his early poems focus on the city’s atmospheric evening light – it seems particularly tragic that he should have gone virtually blind in his 50s. Nonetheless, from 1955 to 1973, Borges was Director of the National Library, then located in Monserrat, where his pleasure at being surrounded by books – even if he could no longer read them – was heightened by the fact that his daily journey to work took him through one of his favourite parts of the city, from his apartment in Maipú along pedestrianized Florida. As Borges’ fame grew, he spent considerable periods of time away from Argentina, travelling to Europe, the US and other Latin American countries – though he claimed always to return to Buenos Aires in his dreams. Borges died in 1986 in Geneva, where he is buried in the Plainpalais cemetery. Borges pilgrims in Buenos Aires will find a commemorative plaque at no. 2108 on Calle Serrano, inscribed with a stanza from his Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires.
North of Palermo, leafy Belgrano is largely residential, apart from the lively shopping streets on either side of its main artery, Avenida Cabildo. Named after General Manuel Belgrano, hero of Argentina’s struggle for independence, it was founded as a separate town in 1855. Over the next decade or two lots of wealthy Porteños built their summer or weekend homes here, and it was incorporated into Buenos Aires during the city’s whirlwind expansion in the 1880s. Many Anglo-Argentines settled in the barrio in those years, and it became popular with the city’s sizeable Jewish community in the 1950s. More recently Taiwanese and Korean immigrants have settled in Barrio Chino, Buenos Aires’ small Chinatown, which stretches along Arribeños between Juramento and Olazába. The central part of the barrio is known as Belgrano C, whose nucleus lies at the junction of avenidas Cabildo and Justamento. As well as stores, cafés and galleries, there’s a clutch of minor museums here.
The well-heeled barrio of Recoleta is, for most Porteños, intrinsically tied to the magnificent La Recoleta Cemetery at its heart. In around 1720, drawn to the area’s tranquillity, which was deemed perfect for meditation or “recollection” (hence the name), Franciscan monks set up a monastery here. It wasn’t until the cholera and yellow fever epidemics of 1867 and 1871 that the city’s wealthy moved to Recoleta, from hitherto fashionable San Telmo. Although many of its residents have left for the northern suburbs in recent years, a Recoleta address still has cachet. Avenida Alvear is Buenos Aires’ swankiest street: along it you’ll find stately palaces, plus designer boutiques, swish art galleries and one of the city’s most prestigious hotels. Scattered throughout the barrio are a host of restaurants and bars, ranging from some of the city’s most traditional to trendy joints that come and go.
Recoleta’s other notable attractions include one of the capital’s few remaining colonial buildings, the gleaming white Basílica Nuestra Señora del Pilar; the Centro Cultural de Recoleta; and the country’s biggest and richest collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Recoleta cemetery’s most famous resident is undoubtedly Evita Perón, second wife of President Juan Perón and one of Argentina’s most enduring figures, who died in 1952. Given the snobbishness surrounding the cemetery – the authorities who preside over it treat it more like a gentlemen’s club than a burial ground – it’s hardly surprising that Porteño high society tried to prevent Evita’s family from laying her to rest here. Nevertheless, her family’s plain, polished black granite vault, pithily marked Familia Duarte and containing poignant quotes on bronze plaques from her speeches, has been her resting place since the 1970s – with the coffin supposedly inside concrete to prevent it from disappearing. Unlike many other graves, it’s not signposted (the cemetery authorities are still uneasy about her presence) but you can locate it by following the signs to Sarmiento’s, over to the left when you come in, then counting five alleyways farther away from the entrance, and looking out for the pile of bouquets by the vault.
One of the world’s most remarkable burial grounds, La Recoleta Cemetery presents an exhilarating mixture of architectural whimsy and a panorama of Argentine history. The giant vaults, stacked along avenues inside the high walls, resemble the rooftops of a fanciful Utopian town from above. The necropolis is a city within a city, a lesson in architectural styles and fashions, and a great place to wander, exploring its narrow streets and wide avenues of yews and cypress trees.
The tombs themselves range from simple headstones to bombastic masterpieces built in a variety of styles including Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Secessionist, Neoclassical, neo-Byzantine and even neo-Babylonian. The oldest monumental grave, dating from 1836, is that of Juan Facundo Quiroga, the much-feared La Rioja caudillo (local leader) immortalized in the Latin American classic Facundo by Argentine statesman and writer Domingo Sarmiento, also buried here. Facundo’s tomb stands straight ahead of the gateway. Next to it, inscribed with a Borges poem, stands the solemn granite mausoleum occupied by several generations of the eminent Alvear family. The vast majority of tombs in Recoleta belong to similar patrician families of significant means – but not all. Perhaps the most incongruous statue in the cemetery is that of a boxer, in the northwest sector – the final resting place of Angel Firpo, who fought Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight title in 1923. Military heroes, many of them Irish or British seafarers who played a key part in Argentina’s struggle for independence, are also buried here, such as Admiral William Brown. An Argentine hero of Irish origins, at the beginning of the nineteenth century Brown decimated the Spanish fleet in the River Plate estuary. An unusual monument decorated with a beautiful miniature of his frigate, the Hercules, is a highlight of the cemetery’s central plaza.
Squeezed between the city centre to the south, Recoleta to the west and mostly inhospitable docklands to the north and east, Retiro gets its name from a hermit’s retiro (retreat) that was hidden among dense woodland here in the sixteenth century, when Buenos Aires was little more than a village. Today it’s surprisingly varied for such a small barrio: commercial art galleries and airline offices outnumber other businesses along the busy streets around the end of Calle Florida near the barrio’s focal point, Plaza San Martín, while west of busy Avenida 9 de Julio lies a smart, quiet residential area.
Lying at Retiro’s aristocratic heart, Plaza San Martín is one of the city’s most enticing green spaces, flanked by opulent patrician buildings. More outstanding examples of the barrio’s palaces, which reflect how wealthy Porteños of the late nineteenth century yearned for their city to be a New World version of Paris, are clustered around Plaza Carlos Pellegrini, one of the city’s most elegant squares. For most Porteños, the barrio’s name has become synonymous with the once grand but now mostly decrepit train terminal, the Estación Retiro, which still retains some original Edwardian features. Next to it is the city’s major bus terminal, a modern and fairly efficient complex, and beyond that urban wasteland and a shantytown.
In the 1880s, French botanist and landscape architect Charles Thays (1849–1934) travelled to South America to study its rich flora, particularly the continent’s hundreds of endemic tree species. He initially settled in Argentina, where his services were in great demand as municipal authorities across the country sought to smarten their cities up. They, like their European and North American counterparts, were spurred by the realization that the country’s fast-growing urban sprawls needed parks and gardens to provide vital breathing spaces and recreational areas.
In 1890, Thays was appointed director of parks and gardens in Buenos Aires, in no small part due to his adeptness at transforming open plazas formerly used for military parades, or plazas secas, into shady plazas verdes, or green squares, such as Plaza San Martín. He also designed the capital’s botanical garden and the zoo – which he planted with dozens of tipas (also known as palo rosa, or rosewood) – as well as Palermo’s Parque 3 de Febrero, Belgrano’s Barrancas, Córdoba’s Parque Sarmiento and Parque San Martín, Tucumán’s Parque 9 de Julio and, most impressive of them all, Mendoza’s Parque General San Martín. Thays received countless private commissions, too, including the garden of Palacio Hume, on Avenida Alvear in Recoleta, and the layout of the exclusive residential estate known as Barrio Parque, in Palermo Chico.
Despite his French origins, he preferred the informal English style of landscaping, and also experimented with combinations of native plants such as jacarandas, tipas and paloborracho (a spiky-trunked relative of the ceibo with handsome pink flowers) with Canary Island palms, planes and lime trees. Oddly enough, given the high regard in which he was held and his contributions to the greening of Buenos Aires, the lone plaza named in his honour, Plaza Carlos Thays, in Palermo, is disappointingly barren, and definitely not the best example of landscaping the city has to offer.
West of central Buenos Aires a vast, mostly residential area spreads out for over a dozen kilometres towards Avenida General Paz. Sights here are scattered; perhaps the neighbourhoods’ greatest appeal lies in their relative lack of tourists, offering a prize glimpse into the lives of ordinary working- and middle-class Porteños. Architecture fans shouldn’t miss the stunning Palacio de las Aguas Corrientes in the barrio of Balvanera, the neighbourhood just south of Recoleta. Northwest of Palermo, the barrio of Chacarita is best known for its namesake cemetery, where tango singer Carlos Gardel is buried. Caballito, right in the heart of the city, has an entertaining natural history museum. Finally, right at Buenos Aires’ fringes, the hugely enjoyable gaucho fair, the Feria de Mataderos, provides one of the best days out in the city.
The Sunday Feria de Mataderos is a celebration of Argentina’s rural traditions. This busy fair attracts thousands of locals and tourists for its blend of folk music, traditional crafts and regional food such as locro, empanadas and tortas fritas, mouthwatering fried cakes. You can also try your hand at regional dances such as the chamamé and chacarera. The undoubted highpoint, however, is the display of gaucho skills in which riders participate in events such as the sortija, in which, galloping at breakneck speed and standing rigid in their stirrups, they attempt to spear a small ring strung on a ribbon. Take plenty of cash – the artisan wares here are often good quality and cheaper than in the central stores, but the stallholders do not take credit cards – and make sure the fair is actually on before setting out, as it sometimes closes or moves to Saturday evenings, especially during the summer months; the city’s tourist kiosks should be able to advise.