The first thing we needed to do was find a place to change money. Argentina is in a strange situation where the country looks relatively well to do, but their money has such a high inflation rate that the Euro or US dollar are worth much more than the official bank rate and with that, a “blue” exchange market has developed – which can be best described as a widely tolerated black market. Openly advertised exchange businesses -like Western Union- will give you almost twice the amount of pesos for a dollar than the banks would. But cash is king. Just a few weeks ago, there was an announcement that foreign credit cards would also enjoy a better exchange rate on purchases in Argentina, but that doesn’t seem to be working yet…. With a bundle of pesos in hand, we proceeded to find an Argentinian SIM card for our phones. This is a first for us after having enjoyed the Google FI International plan for the last few years. Apparently you need to be staying in the US for the majority of the time in order to stay in this plan. We were kicked out, so now we have to do what most overlanders need to do: buy a local SIM card and find your way through the jungle of prepaid conditions offered. Which also means a new telephone number each time you switch countries and/or cards. (This was also partly the reason why we didn’t even try to get one in Uruguay where, after leaving WIFI paradise of Chacra Holandesa, we did not plan to stay long and took advantage of WIFI locations along the road…. Charging the SIM card remains a bit of a mystery for us: before the initial GBs would be depleted, we found out you could buy more data in many small kiosks. However, they could not tell us how much data we got for our money, or how much was left. In addition, very few campgrounds offer WIFI (or if they do, it is very slow, weak, or on-off) so we are more dependent on data. Only recently we found someone at the official provider’s office who could explain how things work. He downloaded the app for us, so now we can see where we stand…
With the money and phone taken care of, we headed for Buenos Aires, by way of two towns that sounded interesting: historic San Antonio de Areco is known as the center of Gaucho culture: In November a big festival with a gathering of flashy looking Gauchos has national fame. We were too early for that and until that time, the only signs of Gaucho presence were old fashioned, beautiful samples of their utilities, like silver studded daggers, belts, spurs, mate cups and bombillas, as well as hats, ponchos, saddles, whips, and the likes. The gaucho museum and a pair of interesting stores remained closed even after siesta time, so after walking the historic part a few times over, we settled in for the night and moved on to Lujan the next morning.
I did not read up enough about Lujan, and I was totally surprised to find that instead another folkloristic magnet, this was a religious pilgrimage center. We entered the town over a wide avenue, which didn’t stop until we faced an immense, empty plaza. We parked our camper in a side street and walked through the arcade, past multiple booths selling souvenirs with depictions of the Virgin or of the grand cathedral- located across the square. The arcades on either side of the approach to the plaza, the immensity of the square, and the impressive church gave me the impression of St. Peter’s Square, albeit a bit more modest. But only when we entered the church, we realized it was a place of pilgrimage. Not only did we see many devout people praying, but also a group of wheelchaired persons, which made me think of the European place of pilgrimage, Lourdes, where I know that many handicapped people come to pray for a miracle of healing.
We entered Buenos Aires during the quiet afternoon siesta. It was almost a straight line through miles of gray apartment buildings to get to the waterfront, where we had memories of staying during a Sunday afternoon back in 1978. The waterfront promenade back then was filled with families slow roasting their meats, and our (then) dog Linda drooling from the smell the cooking gave off. At the end of day, we were approached by several people, asking if we would accept their leftover meat for our dog. We received kilos of the best, tenderest smoked meat – too much for our dog alone, we told ourselves, so we enjoyed some for us during the following days as well.
We did not find or recognized that same location anymore, but close to the waterfront we joined a few other camping trucks on a park-side road, where apparently it was ok for us to stay for several days. Passersby would stop and ask us about our travels and where we would go next, often expressing a wish for doing the same, though unfortunately, because of their weak Argentinian Peso, that adventure would be unaffordable for most of them.
Within walking distance from where we were parked, the neighborhood of San Telmo used to be the place to live in Buenos Aires – before Recoletta, on the other side of the business center and seat of government, became the hotspot. We ventured out to the area with the imposing government buildings around Plaza de Mayo, but found no attraction, and no cozy restaurants here. For us, San Telmo, with Plaza Dorrego and its funky stores and restaurants was the place to be. We gazed through the shop windows that offered high quality wares from recent times and all the way back to a century ago. We discovered modern designer furniture from the fifties and sixties that people in our country would drool over, just piled up or hanging on the walls; oriental jade carvings, and china, and art glass, and silver serviceware – we assume all valuable collections that were expected to hold their value longer than the national valuta – to be sold when money was needed to survive…
Around Plaza de Mayo
Barrio de San Telmo
Vintage design store
Designer shoe store
From the outside looking in, Pulperia Quilapan looked like another hoarding antique store. Vintage curios, like film reels, Thonet chairs, old dusty wine bottles (still full!) and much more joined an old piano hanging on the wall. When we ventured further in, every room was a discovery with its own funky style. We decided to eat here and were directed to the courtyard, where archeologists recently found layers of older habitat evidence in the old well. Nice restaurant, good service, but the food was a little bland… maybe because I picked a vegetarian dish.
Restaurant Pulperia Quilapan in San Telmo
The day we decided to walk to La Boca, it happened to be a Saturday. Maybe La Boca is always crowded – we observed tourists were brought in by busloads – and if it’s not, we still picked a day that was sunny and cool. Walking there from San Telmo is not far, but when Thijs does the navigation, we tend to go the long way. Upon arrival, we were overwhelmed by the omnipresence of blue and yellow colors of La Bombonera, home to la Boca Juniors soccer team. Not only the soccer stadium and the surrounding buildings, but also people and cars colored the streets in blue and yellow. Walk a little further, and a true attack on your eyes comes in play: multitudes of colors, so loud, you’ll have to wear sunglasses. It is a happy scene though, like walking through a fairytale wonderland. Buenos Aires’ most colorful neighborhood was started by poor working class immigrants from Italy and Spain, who eked out a living by working at the waterfront warehouses and meatpacking plants. Most of la Boca is still drab and dilapidated, but the houses around and along the Caminito near the former railway station celebrate life with color, music, dance and their favorite soccer team with Maradona as their controversial hero. Artists that later moved in have bumped up the color, and tourists followed. La Boca is now one of the must-see parts of Buenos Aires, filled with outdoor restaurants with live music and tango performances, life sized puppets with the likeness of Evita or Maradona wave from balconies or draw you into an overloaded souvenir store…its’s a madhouse, really…but one must see. Walking back, the streets in San Telmo felt dignified and mature. We stopped for a drink at the Plaza Dorrego and watched a muted version of a hot tango on the square.
Blue and Yellow colors of Club Atletico Boca Juniors soccer team
The colorful Barrio la Boca, Buenos Aires
Back to San Telmo from la Boca. Good to see this giant ficus tree surrounded by busy roads.
On Sunday morning we decided to move on: the number of campers along the street where we’d stayed had slowly increased from five to ten, which I thought could be pushing the good city’s generous tolerance, and Sunday would be a good day to leave the city while traffic is at a minimum. Just as we were ready to leave, a foods market had built up across the street from us, so we could even leave town well stocked, ready for the trip going south into the pampas.