“Salmon, no? Pescado. Tres.”
The waiter stared, wide-eyed, as if I had just ordered an exotic meal. Or my feeble attempt at Spanish had rendered him speechless.
He was probably aghast that we were in Buenos Aires, Argentina – the beef capital of the world – and three out of our party of four had wanted pescado or fish. Salmon wasn’t on the menu but that didn’t stop me from asking – if no salmon, then any pescado will do.
The desperation stemmed from nearly a week-long carnivore diet of grilled, stewed and stuffed meat. The kids had even started comparing pasta to char koay teow. Alas, Asian restaurants were few and far between, and nowhere close to where we were putting up for the week. The day before, we walked half a kilometre to a Chinese restaurant, only to fork out the equivalent of RM100 for unpalatable fried rice and noodles. I kept reminding myself that we certainly didn’t travel 42 hours here from Penang for Asian cuisine, but for a slice of Argentine culture, nature and adventure. Thankfully, we found that aplenty, with Buenos Aires setting the stage for our three-week vacation in Argentina.
In step to the seductive beat of the tango, Buenos Aires lulled us with its vibe and allure. The cosmopolitan city has no shortage of art, antiques and architecture of European and Latin American influence. In fact, the locals who call themselves Portenos (people from the port) consider Buenos Aires as the most European capital in the world – and their people the most beautiful.
Upon arrival, we encountered well-groomed immigration officers who looked like they had stepped out of movie sets. Even police constables on the streets could make an impression on the catwalk: The men tall and suave, the women with full make-up and manicured nails.
People-watching is certainly a favourite pastime here, with sidewalk cafes enjoying brisk business. In our case, dog-walkers and their charges captured our attention. A common sight in affluent neighbourhoods and parks in Buenos Aires, these passeaperos or professional dog-walkers manage between eight and 20 dogs, from grooming to feeding and walking the dogs twice a day while the owners are at work. I read that many of the passeaperos are trained in veterinary science and even earn higher wages than teachers!
We managed to get a table on our second attempt at Café Tortoni, located along Avenida de Mayo. I believe little has changed since its inception in 1858. Waiters in black suits waited upon us in the dimly lit and elegant interior lavished with stained glasses, old paintings on walls and wood furniture. Eva Peron, or Evita as she was affectionately known, and her husband Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron had also dined here in the past. (Back then she was known as Eva Duarte and he General Peron, Minister of Labour).
The story of the first lady had intrigued me in the movie Evita, with Madonna’s stirring rendition of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. However, the movie glossed over her life and meteoric rise from poverty to become the most powerful woman in Argentina, and her past was shrouded in controversy – right to her final burial, 24 years after her death.
A military coup right after her passing at age 33 in 1952 resulted in the disappearance of her embalmed corpse; it was carted around Europe, hidden or buried, before her remains were returned and she was finally laid to rest in the family tomb at the Recoleta Cemetery in 1976. Her mausoleum is modest in black granite facade, compared to the other mini-mansions adorned with elaborate statues, imported marble and bronze fixings.
Situated in one of the most expensive parcels of real estate in Buenos Aires, the Recoleta cemetery spans 5.66ha and serves as the final resting place of famous Argentineans, from presidents to scientists and Nobel Prize winners. Some of the mausoleums are elaborate with architecture styles from Art Deco to Baroque and Neo-Gothic. CNN ranks Recoleta Cemetery among the 10 most beautiful cemeteries in the world.
From here, we took the subway to another grandiose and opulent set-up, which CNN also calls out as one of the world’s coolest bookstores.
The El Ateneo bookstore located at Santa Fe Avenue is housed inside a refurbished old theatre which had a seating capacity of 1,050. It still retains its architecture and carvings, fresco ceiling, crimson stage curtains and stage lighting.
Our art trail continued to Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba), the 20th century Latin American art museum.
The sprawling museum, located on four floors, displays an impressive collection of Latin American art in the form of drawings, paintings, sculptures, photography, print and installations.
Everything inside this museum is a piece of art; even the planks of wood of a simple bench appear fluid and intertwine with the floor and ceiling.
I particularly liked Liliana Porter’s showcase of a sculptural installation depicting objects found in a flea market, combining miniature figurines and common household items.
It reminded me of the I Spy picture books, only now we were confronted with a gallery sprawled with objects that presented her view on both human distress and humour.
Before visiting yet another fine arts museum, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts), we joined the Portenos in lazing at the Plaza Naciones Unidas park, admiring the magnificent steel and aluminium sculpture, Floralis Generica. A prominent landmark, the 23m-high giant flower sculpture weighs 18 tonnes; its petals open at dawn and close at dusk.
We found the streets and neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires to be architectural marvels, a mix of neoclassical styles largely influenced by French and Italian Renaissance. The Catedral Metropolitana at Plaza de Mayo and University of Buenos Aires’s Law School are reminiscent of ancient Greek temples, with their Corinthian and Doric columns, respectively.
The San Telmo neighbourhood plays host to a bustling market every Sunday, which runs for more than 2km and is jam-packed with locals and tourists alike. We couldn’t seem to find the end of the market with the rows of stalls displaying one-of-a-kind handcrafted art, jewellery and antiques.
No visit to Buenos Aires would be complete without seeing the tango. We opted for a dinner show held at a classical theatre that featured a full orchestra and professional tango dancers. But we could easily catch tango performed on the streets, especially in the lively La Boca, its colourful Caminito neighbourhood brimming with tango music and dance throughout the day. La Boca is home to Boca Juniors, the most popular football club in Argentina – which Maradona and Messi once played for.
We wound down each day in a cosy cafe, and in this particular one, we watched yet another dog-walker scurrying past with a pack of 10 obedient dogs.
The waiter cleared his throat, breaking our reverie, and gestured at the menu.“Ma’am, would you like to try our steak?”
He leaned across and pointed at what I assumed was the chef’s recommendation. He waited patiently for my final order.
“Pizza mozzarella. Uno.”
Buenos Aires travel tips
Watch your personal belongings
We almost fell victims to a syndicate out to con unsuspecting tourists. We were in a crowded street walking in a single file. My husband, who was in front of me, found white droplets on his shirt. At the same instant, someone had nudged me to ask for the time, which I shrugged off (I couldn’t reply in Spanish, anyway). We stepped aside quickly, away from the crowd, and declined an offer to wipe away the stain. A lady then approached us and asked us to be careful of our belongings because she had seen this modus operandi at a nearby street. We checked – thankfully nothing was stolen. By now, all who came into contact with us had disappeared. We were told later by a guide that this was a common scam in South America but the lady who spoke English was probably genuine.
Change money at Avenida Florida
Changing money in Buenos Aires was quite an experience. Since credit cards are not widely used in Argentina, we had to forecast our entire trip expenses and bring US dollars, in cash. The free fall of the Argentine peso had made the US currency much sought after and we managed to get good rates at Florida Avenue, the central shopping street of downtown Buenos Aires. Tourists would be accosted by money changers shouting “Cambio! Cambio!” (exchange).
Take public transport and pre-book transfers
We drove around Argentina but, in Buenos Aires, we mainly travelled by subway and buses. We took taxis occasionally – for the simple reason that we couldn’t communicate in Spanish. We were told to watch for counterfeit bills when they gave us change. We thought we were careful but on one occasion we were overcharged – the taxi driver insisted that he had told us a different (and higher) fare, which was double what we had agreed upon. (Can’t win all the time!)