Day 1 To Buenos Aires
Having waved goodbye to my mum and step-dad who had, charmingly, driven up to see us off, we contemplate the flight upgrade we've allegedly received (without even asking, hence the suspicion). We have visions of being plonked in the ‘extra legroom’ seats between the emergency exit and the crapper, meaning we’d have to spend 14 hours staring deep into the eyes of people needing to use the toilet.
However, we’ve inexplicably come up trumps and scored what seatguru.com gushingly call "good" seats (my dad has remotely pulled the entire specs of the plane up online before we've even gone through security), getting extra legroom, a reckless supply of Cava AND metal cutlery. Dreams are lived.
14 hours in the lower lap of luxury later, we touch down through the wind and rain at BA, to wait anxiously for our bags on the conveyer-belt of broken dreams. Ruth's is one of the last to limp through the tunnel which has given her ample time to imagine baggage handlers in Frankfurt gleefully rolling around in her grundies.
What swiftly becomes clear is that 4 months of Duolingo and a misspent year at GCSE do not a fluent Spanish speaker make. "Usted tiene... the address?" I ask our soon-to-be-surly pre-booked taxi driver. Fortunately he does indeed have "la dirección" (of course) so we sit in silence while he careens through landscapes which vary from the startlingly dilapidated to the familiarly European to the agreeably colourful. Traffic is a hair-raising affair, where green lights are a race between getting a foot on the gas before the enraged bus driver behind leans on his horn.
We are expelled in Palermo where Maria, our cheerfully helpful AirBnB host accurately deduces the limits of our Spanish from my opening "¡Aloha!" And gives us a whistle-stop tour of her handsome-looking apartment while we gratefully nod and wait for the WiFi password. After a stream of instructions about bus-use which we are unlikely to employ because of the lingual interaction required, she leaves us to it.
Exhausted, we plunder her data allowance to reassure parents we made it safely and yes, that was indeed metal cutlery on our flight.
We head out, with patchy GPS coverage and even patchier sense of direction. I've always been fond of navigating using the sun which has proved calamitous even in the Northern hemisphere where I've lived for 33 years - the marital repercussions of doing so here are explained in no uncertain terms by Ruth, so we head into a coffee shop called 'Havanna' (lending the opportunity for numerous 'are you Havanna good time?' conversation killers), and we literally ponder our place in this world using their gratis WiFi.
Palermo, it turns out, shares much in common with Shoreditch in East London and Williamsburg in New York. Craft bars, colourful street food markets, single speed bikes sprayed neon and hanging from things aplenty. I'm avoiding the 'H' word deliberately. We had chosen to stay here because of its relative proximity to the rest of Buenos Aires largely because I want to eat a steak as big as my head, and this is a great place to literally have it served to me on a plate.
In the meantime, wanting to walk the streets and get a feel for the place, we head for Parque 3 de Febrero, a large green blob on our map.
Immediately taking a wrong turn, we find ourselves walking alongside 14 thundering lanes of automotive chaos. The sun has come out which at least gives us something to talk about beyond the Spanish word for "useless". Crossing the motorway like Frogger, we trudge rain-saturated pathways to emerge at Galileo's Planetario - a cheerfully domed monolith amongst the roses. If a person spoke more words of Spanish than those they had picked up off bumblebee man from The Simpsons, I daresay they could have a blast at one of the shows in the Planetarium, certainly if the swarms of schoolkids larking about outside were anything to go by.
As it was, we didn't fancy our chances so we took a few photos of enormous meteorites and left for the nearby Botanical Gardens down another formidable asphalt free-for-all.
I'm as fond of a bit of topiary as the next man, but this place doesn't quite do it for me - perhaps it was the absence of amusingly-shaped bushes, or the fact that the pathways were littered with pensioners and other wretched tourists like us, but it doesn't seize me the way I like my Botanical Gardens to. Pleasant and pretty enough, (and certainly providing some respite from the circus on the roads outside) it is decided that we should head back to the bars of the North, because apparently one of us is getting cranky.
The cobbled streets of Palermo Soho lead us to Serrano - what we will later learn is the most touristy square of a touristy district which would explain the high prices (although my yardstick; a pint of beer, is still cheaper than in London). However, jetlagged and footsore, the neon lights and ironic rock music (which just so happens to be my brand) welcome us in like an old friend. After muddling through the low-hanging branches of the Spanish language we are presented with that most Argentinian of snacks, the hotdog, and a LITRE of beer. What a country.
Refreshed and renewed some drinks later, we push on to Palermo Hollywood, the other side of the tracks, to Miranda's, a steak house of some repute. Now London has a lot to answer for for what happened next. As does our inability to translate a Spanish menu. However, while local clientele looked on with bemusement bordering on disgust, we ordered a main (the aforementioned head-sized steak) and side (grilled vegetables) each. In London this would be about enough for to forget the fact that we've just handed over £32 for a thick slice of meat and some patatas. Here it is gluttony, pure and simple. The amount of food which turns up is obscene. The enormous (but excellent) steak comes accompanied by a sackful of potatoes and a vast pile of grilled vegetables. The EXTRA side of grilled vegetables towers above my wine glass. The next hour and a half has neighbouring tables prolonging their post-meal small talk just to see if we can finish it. We do not of course, but it finishes us. The bill is not even expensive, but lessons have been learned. We retire.
A boisterous night, which showcased Buenos Aires' traffic at its most noisily triumphant. The horn is evidently employed as an instrument to be used at all hours. We head out for a light breakfast, still uncomfortably full after last night's excesses, and ending up in a place called Panarosa on account of their typographic windows and sunny courtyard. We sit in the sun and over-order again.
Afterwards, we waddle to Palermo metro station and fail to charge the Oyster card Maria left for us due in small part to an absence of small-denomination notes and in large part to technical incompetence. Decide to do it later, and splurge all her remaining credit to get us both into town. We pop out, after some back-pattingly excellent navigation, near Recoleta cemetery - apparently the most expensive real estate in BA. A vast block of tombs and mausoleums dating back to the early 19th century, it is an imposing labyrinth of by turns touching and ostentatious memorials to the departed. Eva Peron's tomb is denoted by the large crowds of Americans around it. We spend more time in the cemetery than we mean to - it is well worth a visit.
Overlooking the cemetery, there is a recommendably decent brew-pub called Bullers which we sit in while planning our next stop; the Biblioteca, to meet a man called Juan, who has the uphill struggle of trying to finesse our language skills in the two hours ahead of him. Ruth has picked up an attractive scratchy cough along the way today, (no doubt due to the waist-high cloud of exhaust fumes we've spent the last 48 hours wading through) which is as quiet as it is infrequent.
Having walked to the Biblioteca (a quirky pink building block with a surprisingly tranquil garden behind it) we meet Juan who shows us what looks like a very impressive cafe about 10 storeys up in the Corbusier building behind the library. Irritatingly, it is closed - ("Corbusi-nay" gets no one laughing) so we stay at ground level. Juan turns out to be both an excellent tutor and a patient man - both attributes he sorely needs this afternoon. We learn much - even some Spanish (the 'y' pronunciation of European Spanish is pronounced as 'shh' here - this is a revelation which needed to come sooner) He is also rife with trivia - Argentinians tend just to have a herbal tea for breakfast called mate, and again we could have done with following this advice this morning. He also recommends some good bars and tango joints for the evening.
Afterwards, we head to the nearby national Art gallery, which is slightly underwhelming if you're after international renown, but has some decent local landscape painters if you like that sort of thing (I do). Rather than follow this with the palatial MAIPU gallery behind it, with thousands of works of art from across the world, and apparently a must see by many guidebooks, we head to the National Museum of Design and Architecture, the best feature of which is the building it's housed in.
Walk back to the tube through Recoleta and a fetching sunset before getting the Metro to Once in the West of the city, to check out one of Juan's tango bars. Once is pretty grim when we emerge - heaving with one crowd of people trying to flog batteries and bits of tat and another crowd trying to push through them to get to the train station. After we've left the scrum, the Boliche de Roberto is very agreeable. Powered by a petrol generator, it looks like it has fought change since the 19th century - old bottles, radios and Tango posters adorn the walls while we adorn the bar. Armed with many new Spanish words and phrases, which are already leaking out of my memory like a deflating balloon, we order a bottle of Malbec and sit and wait. The place is open until 4am and while not a show as such, the dancing apparently begins when a couple have had enough wine and are feeling lusty enough.
While waiting for said circumstances (we're well on our way through the former ourselves) we look at the patrons - mostly a few local old boys laughing throatily, and a table of Americans ordering pizza. When the pizza oven is switched on, the lights dip to near darkness. The waiter goes to give the generator a good kicking and it roars into life lending the air quality and Ruth's lungs a lovely petroly tinge. By the time we've finished the wine it's 11, and the old boys don't look like the sort who will be tangoing together any time soon, plus Ruth's cough is beginning to sound of medical interest, so we pay our cuenta and leave.
Walk back to Palermo past a bar of beards and stop in a Peruvian restaurant called Bardot, which serves fantastic ceviche (very thin strips of meat and fish in a lemony jus) and the intriguingly named "leche du tigre". The leche turns out to be an evocatively-coloured (given the name) soup of - we guess - coconut milk, lemon, chilli and coriander, and it's absolutely marvellous. I could have a pint of the stuff, but it's late and we need to get going. Embarrassingly we don't have enough cash for the bill and Bardot refuses to 'Bridget' with a card, so I have to walk a kilometre up the road and back to a cashpoint while Ruth sits on her own at the table, the very picture of English shame.
Ruth has not slept well. And courtesy of the traffic fume/generator combo, this morning has a missing octave in her vocal range lending our dual-lingual skills some much-unneeded interference. Después a breakfast banana we head out. We've elected today as our 'tourist day' after two days of blending in like chameleons. We head downtown to Avenida de Mayo where Eva Peron used to speak to adoring crowds, and the 'father of Argentina' general Martín, is buried.
Today, everything is cheerfully barricaded up to the gunwales and teeming with armed police so we can't get close to the pink house - the government palace - instead we take some photos of it through railings and head to the Municipal Cathedral on the other side of the plaza, while wondering what that ominous chanting in the distance is. The most splendid aspect of the Cathedral for me, aside from a majestic tomb of El Liberatador - Jose de San Martín, the man credited with liberating Argentina, Chile and Peru from its colonial overlords, are the resplendent guardia who patrol and guard the place: who wouldnt want to wear a uniform with so much polished gold? While we are in the giftshop looking at coasters of the Pope, there is an explosion outside. The cashier rolls her eyes in a "this again" manner and we nervously walk outside to see a throng of angry looking protesters marching towards the Pink House - oooh, perhaps that explains the barricades - and shouting. Smoke flares are thrown and more bangers go off.
We decided that two insultingly uno-lingual Brits would be best off not caught up in this shit, so beat a retreat. Annoyingly for us and capitalism, the protest has also closed Avenida de Mayo - the Parisian style boulevard with historic bookshops and cafes on it - so everywhere has a welcoming set of anti ram-raiding shutters pulled down, and twitchy looking police outside. We walk up Avenida 9 de Julio - the date of Argentinian independance - which is chaos of the automotive kind. Take some photos by their obelisk, along with a thousand other sunburned tourists, and then walk down some busy parilla-lined streets gasping for a coffee. The parilla is a bloody great barbecue grill over a DIY furnace, furiously cooking anything that goes on it. Because this is Argentina, the food that goes on it - asado - is every bit of meat that can be eaten by man. It smells delicious but it's a bit early for another protein overload.
We get a cortado off the main drag, and then head east to the docks. There are some handsome waterfront bars here, but we carry on to the ecological park the other side. It's amazingly peaceful after the busy dock roads, but affords no view of the Silver River the other side, which is disappointing. We don't get very far around this because it is insanely hot in the sun today, and also there are many dogs and I'm a bit paranoid about the rabies jabs I didn't get back home. We head back to Recoleta, past the clock tower the British gifted the Argentines (closed), past Retiro metro station (closed) past Plaza St Martín (metro station closed) before finally getting back to the bloody obelisk where we find a working tube line. take it straight to a bar in Palermo. After bumbling our way through a conversation with a waiter who at least understands we want to take full advantage of the current happy hour, he returns with a full carafe of cerveza ¡Hooray! The WiFi allows us to let everyone at home know our fortuitous change of circumstances.
Afterwards we head to the pizza place over the road for a fugazetta (recommended by Juan yesterday - dough, cheese, onion, cheese - a winning combination) and our first empanada of the trip. Both are delicious. In much better spirits now, lubricated by both queso and cerveza we head just down the road again (if anyone is interested, this was all along about 200 metres of Calle Costa Rica in Palermo Hollywood - what a cheap, cheerful, gastronomic goldmine) to a craft bar where, perhaps unsurprisingly we meet the first other English people of our trip. A few blocks south of here, we again over-order (again because of poorly communicated Spanish) some lado - ice-cream is a Buenos Aires institution allegedly. I opt for vanilla and dulce-de-leche which pretty much finishes me off for the night. Another bar on the way home ensures the job is done. Toddle into a mercado to try and order stamps for our unwritten postcards, and tentatively ask for 'estampillos' but evidently without sufficient enunciation because the cashier looks horrified and hands me a packet of tampons to the amusement of everyone except me.
Finally get home, incorrectly use a washing machine and go to bed.
Day 4 Bus to Mendoza
Ruth's cough is still very much hacking on, and was competing with the horns last night for both volume and frequency. The laundry we cleaned without the 'spin dry' function is unsurprisingly still not dry, which is going to lead to some gloriously humid conditions in our bags over the 14 hour bus journey later.
Although we are checking out today, Maria lets us leave our bags here so we can wring a few more drops out of Buenos Aires before we leave. We cab to St Telmo, part of the old town, to wander along cobbled streets and drink coffee in colonial-looking cafes, daubed in colourful artwork. (My old colleague rated Sam Telmo thus:
"San Telmo = depends which part, some is safe, some other parts just take a gun.") Unbelievably we come across an expat pub called The Gibraltar. Wonder about the rationale behind naming a British pub in the Argentine capital after a disputed overseas territory, while reading on the blackboard we could get pies, peas and chips here. San Telmo also boasts some lovely old covered flea markets (where I finally get some estampillos) which consume a diverting hour or two. Consider walking through to La Boca (the colourful picture postcard barrio) but decide instead to sit in the sun in a cafe. Unfortunately, whilst sipping, we have to listen to an unpredictable-looking sunburned man carrying around a plastic bottle of wine shouting at the landlord. Classically, our now famous language skills rather prevent us learning the gist of his concerns, but when a young girl on an adjacent table starts to cry and other patrons wordlessly leave their cash and unfinished drinks on the table and sidle off, we gather his tone is pretty colourful. Thank piss then, for la policia who round the corner, and inspire señor sunburn to clear off.
We make our way back to Palermo, grab our comically oversized rucksacks and head to Retiro bus station, which is rather a disappointing place from which to wave goodbye to Buenos Aires, with thousands of harassed travellers trying to get in and out, a small shanty town next-door, and an absence of enough seats for two ratty backpackers who didn't pack economically enough. An hour later though, and the Andesmar bus we're on is better than expected - more luxurious legroom and even a light supper featuring mostly dulce de leche biscuits is provided. Aside from some warbling, unlucky-in-love troubadour playing on the TV I'd go as far as to say it is comfortable. Just as we're dozing off - it's about 11:30pm - we are roused by a blood curdling scream and look up the bus to see someone get chainsawed in two. On the TV. They've put a bloody zombie film on! And it's set on a bus! The next two hours are a combination of snatched minutes of sleep, broken by moments of gut-churning violence. "¿Vino?" Asks the steward at one point, "Si, por favor" we say, relieved. But it turns out he was asking if we wanted to play "bingo". Bingo?!