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Trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina

Monday March 24, through Wednesday April 2, 2014


We had heard good things about Argentina, and especially Buenos Aires, from a tourist perspective. Jenny found some reasonably priced air tickets, and research showed that hotels, restaurants, and other expenses were modest. The season was right (Late March is early fall). Charlie had not been there since a brief visit in 1969, and Jenny had never been there. What better combination of reasons to go!

Trip Summary

We flew into Buenos Aires, and took a taxi downtown to our hotel. It is a nice, friendly city with many sites to visit. On Saturday March 29 we took a day trip to the historical city of Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay (an hour on a high speed ferry). On Monday we took the train for a walking tour of the port city of Tigre, which primarily supported small boats taking provisions up the many small rivers to the interior of Argentina, and bringing out logs. On Tuesday evening we started home, arriving Wednesday mid-day.

Travel Hints

Many guides and on-line references described how, because of inflation, the US Dollar was held in high esteem, and merchants would often give 30% over the official Argentina pesos exchange rate if paid in US currency (sometimes called blue Dollars). Therefore we carried a LOT of US cash, hoping to get a bargain. Many Argentineans travel to Uruguay to withdraw dollars from the ATMs that dispense either US dollars or Uruguayan pesos. Taxi drivers and guides needing a tip seemed pleased to be paid in dollars, but we never got a bargain in stores or restaurants for offering dollars. (Maybe it would have been different in small towns or markets, instead of the capital city). Many but not all of the restaurants accepted credit cards. There was no problem getting local currency from the ATMs but the transaction fees were high (about $5 each time).

Confusing point, you have to constantly keep in mind: The currency symbol for the Argentina Peso worth about 12 cents is "$". The currency symbol for the nearby Uruguayan Peso worth about 4 cents is "$". And you know the symbol for the US Dollar.

Taxis were cheap, clean, and convenient, with one exception. If you caught a taxi on the street you were fine. But if the hotel called a taxi, and one had been waiting at that hotel for more than a couple minutes, you were charged the wait fee - close to US$10 for the first 3-60 minutes. We thought it would be safer to have the hotel call a taxi. After the first bitter experience at the hotel, we just waved one down on the street, and paid the meter amount plus about 10% tip. The taxis available for hire had a bright red lighted sign in their front window.

The Buenos Aires subways are primarily radial, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. They go from the suburbs into the city, but are not a good way to get around the city. However a typical taxi ride within the city was US$2 to US$5 (well under 50 pesos)

Getting There - March 24-25

Depart Austin (one Admiral's club) at 10 am Monday, to Dallas-Fort Worth (4 Admiral's Clubs in the four American Airlines terminals). A long layover in DFW then on to Miami (2 Admiral's clubs in the same terminal - check your departing gate before choosing your club). After a short layover, a non-stop flight to Buenos Aires arriving at 6:25 am Tuesday March 25 (two hours earlier than Austin, one hour earlier than Eastern time). The lines for immigration were the longest I have ever seen anywhere. Then pick up your checked bags and get in an even longer line for customs. The customs inspection was the usual "getting on the plane" type x-ray machine, apparently looking for merchandise you are bringing in for resale. It took a couple hours to get through that process. Near the exit from customs, you can "buy" the 22 mile taxi ride to your hotel, using a credit card (about $40), without waiting in the long taxi line. As soon as you have paid, a porter will carry your bag to a waiting car (parked away from the terminal) and send you on your way. Odd, but it was recommended on the web and worked fine.

One downside of travel to Argentina. The United States requires a visa from Argentina visitors, that can cost $160. Therefore Argentina charges visitors from the USA a "reciprocity fee" of US$160 to enter the country. (Go on-line to pay the fee by credit card and print out the ticket, good for 10 years.) I didn't see them examine the ticket when we entered initially, but it was examined in detail when we returned from Uruguay.

Dinner time in Buenos Aires is late... often 10 pm. You may find restaurants closed or empty at 6 pm. Salt is ground much finer than we are used to - almost like powdered sugar. You may not see it coming out of the salt shaker onto your food. Try shaking some into your hand first.

We stayed at the NH Tango Hotel in the center of the city, eventually learning that NH is a chain of 400 hotels in 28 countries. Ours was connected to one of the largest Tango theaters, hence the name (the hotel entrance was the apparently dark doorway at the left under the marquee). Reasonable price room for center city ($135) including an outstanding breakfast buffet, and good WiFi throughout. One irritation... check in time was 3 pm; we finally arrived just before noon, but there would be a US$10 per hour fee if we wanted to access our room early. They held our bags for free while we went to lunch and explored the local area.

Near the center of town, in the middle of the wide Avenida 9 de Julio, near our hotel, is a 223 foot tall obelisk that has become the main landmark and tourist attraction for Buenos Aires. What does it stand for? Nothing. What is it's purpose? Nothing. As a Buenos Aires web site says, "To accentuate its blatant sexuality, the Obelisco is covered by an enormous condom on International Aids Awareness Day." We were not there for that December 1 event. Google to the rescue - we found this picture on-line:

Buenos Aires is very proud of the fact that the Pope came from their city, and commonly refer to the cathedral as the Pope's Church. Outside it doesn't look much like a church

But inside, it is a classical church with fancy altar, etc. The entry has multiple large pictures of the pope, just in case you forgot. We went there on Sunday, and were impressed with the music. As we were leaving, we realized that it was just an organist and three people in the balcony who beautifully filled the cathedral.

This is the west wing (or at least the west side) of the Casa Rosada (we would have called it the white house, except it is pink). Actually it has the offices of the president of Argentina, but his residence is now elsewhere. This back side, facing the major Plaza de Mayo, is the photogenic side.

I believe the balcony over the large portico is where the president makes his public appearances.

Many streets and parks are named for dates - for example, Plaza de Mayo (at the Cathedral) and Avenida 9 de Julio (our hotel and the obelisk), and many other streets and places with date-names. So many dates that we rarely could tell us what the date represented. There have been so many changes of government (and borders) that the political history is confusing, and it was not clear whether each date was recent or "old history." There seemed to always be a peaceful protest over... something. So many protests that nobody seemed to notice other than the participants - often as few as a half dozen people.

There was a group living in Plaza de Mayo - much like "Occupy Wall Street" (but I don't know what they were protesting). It seemed to be well organized with tents and living area for common dining.

They were staying long enough that they were even doing laundry - note the clothes line, and realize that this is basically in front of the white house - oops pink house. (Why pink? The competing political parties used Red and White colors, so pink is the two together!)

In the center of the city, near the parking garages, there were often places where you could leave your dog. Not clear to us whether these were just places to meet your dog walker, or whether this was doggie day care. Dog Walking appears to be an honorable profession, some people wearing a harness with 5-10 clips for leashes.

This is the largest city in Argentina, and the second largest in South America (after São Paulo, Brasil), so there are obviously lots of residential buildings.

It rarely freezes in Buenos Aires, so the locals appear to appreciate a balcony on every apartment.

As we wandered towards the museums, we came across a grove of Kapok trees (although there was no sign to explain what they were - talking to others and later checking with Google explained them).

Notice the size of the branches - that is Jenny standing (not sitting) under one of the many trees

Or notice the size of the roots surrounding Charlie, as he stands in a wound on one tree. (Remember Charlie is over 6 feet tall - or for our metric friends, 193 cm)

The blossoms come in a variety of colors.

The seed pods grow and burst like a cotton ball. In my youth Kapok was used as fill in sleeping bags and as stuffing in life vests. The pods do not all ripen at the same time, so it has to be hand picked repeatedly over time, often from high in the tree. Synthetic filling is far more economical these days.

We thought this grand building was the museum we were looking for. Nope, it is the School of Law. Look just beyond at the huge stainless steel flower sculpture, Floralis Genérica

We came to the Cloisters Pilar just before we arrived at the cemetery and museum that was our goal, so took a tour. The chapel and convent were started in 1716, the facility was declared a Historic National Monument in 1942, but was not open to the public until 1997. Our guide showed how the Cloisters had grown over the years. As I recall admission was $10 each, but that was pesos, so US$1.20 each. We found it quite interesting and well worth an hour or two.

At first we thought this was just a simple old picture in the cloister part that has become a museum. Then we read the description on the wall (in both English and Spanish). Not just a picture! (I took a picture and copied the description.)

"Italian reliquary from the early 1800s, made with cardboard and decorated with golden paper border. It has the shape of a classical altarpiece with the image of St. Pascual Bailon colored on parchment. On the alter are reproductions of flowerpots and candlesticks made of bone. In the reliquary of earlier origin are relics of St. Alfonso Maria Ligorio, St. Lucia, and parts of the Virgin's veil."

From the cloister we could look out over the Recoleta Cemetery next door. BBC and CNN have named it among the best/most beautiful cemeteries in the world.

Why would you tour a cemetery on a vacation trip? Hard to say, but we found it very worth the couple hours spent. Reviews on the web almost universally said, "do it" and one disbeliever admitted to actually visiting several times.

Row after row of mausoleums. Guide books can be purchased near the entrance, and guides will show you around for a fee or tip, but you can wander freely as we did. Most mausoleums are in great condition, but some are in disrepair, and through broken doors or windows you can see the actual caskets - some still shiny and new, others covered with years or centuries of dust. Some even have a steep staircase down to a lower level where additional caskets are placed.

A list of the noteworthy people buried here includes 18 presidents of Argentina, Eva Perone (Of local radio, theater, and political fame before Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita" fame), Nobel laureates, and other famous Argentenians.

This is one mausoleum that I cannot figure out. A cross (okay), a lady (okay), lighting a minora (huh?). Maybe they just want to cover all bases. Jenny's research found that it related to the parable of the 10 virgins (Matthew 25) waiting for the arrival of the bride groom, and some running out of oil for their lamps.

It is a big mausoleum (or whatever)- see Jenny standing near it. And there is a wealthy Ortiz Basualdo family in Buenos Aires - Google reports at length about their "mansion" which later became the French embassy.

Finally we arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts ... mostly from Argentina. The collection was displayed floor to ceiling, much like the Barnes collection in Pennsylvania.

They also had a wide variety of art by local artists, these from the 19th and 20th centuries.

And, of course, I cannot pass up furniture displayed in a Museum

Walking back to our hotel, we passed these bears. No explanation, not apparently part of any gallery or museum, but cute.

Thursday March 27

Another unlabeled picture. Walking in another area of the city, we passed this amazing building, and had to take a picture. No obvious labels on the building. Google can search for pictures as well as for words, so I did, and I found this in several other travelogues - all without labels, except one German tourist who thought it might have, at one time, been a medical school! Oh well, an impresive building on an ordinary street corner in Buenos Aires.

We took a taxi to the National Museum of the Decorative Arts. The museum was housed in a historical old house, perhaps more interesting than the exhibits on display in the house. Unfortunately no photos allowed of the ballroom, balconies, or diverse rooms. The fireplaces were designed by Rodin, but World War I interfered, so they had the Rodin model but the actual fireplace was generic, bought from a catalog.

One of the locals recommended that we visit MALBA, a few blocks away. That is the Museum of Arts of Latin America in Buenos Aires (in Spanish the acronym aligns better with the name.) I was quite intrigued with this lamp, best photographed in the gift shop.

On the second floor was a bench available for seating, until you looked at the path the slats took (one slat even crossed over the other towards the far end), then wove over the wall.

On the third floor was another bench, similar - but slightly different with the slats, again, going over the wall.

Okay, where did the slats go? This is the view from the escalator. The slats were solid wood, not a flexible imitation.

In another area they had a large carved bench with multiple seating positions. Bad news... one seat was tolerable, but the others were decidedly uncomfortable. The huge hunk of walnut wood must have cost a fortune!

The best part was a visiting photo exhibition by Mario Testino, a famous photographer of famous people, born in Peru, and now based in London. His show filled most of the third floor of the building. Many pictures were rather explicit (clothing optional), so I had to be very selective of what I could show on this web site - this overview through 4 of the exhibit rooms passed the G rating test.

Testino's favorite technique is to pose a "normal" picture, then disrupt it in some way. You probably thought this was a normal star-picture until you notice the right hand/arm.

I am not sure where the shock is in Lady Gaga, other than perhaps fairly normal clothing and pose. The lady walking the dogs on the left is in an evening gown.

Testino was from Peru, and this would be a lovely native Peruvian picture, until you notice the clothing of the lead person. I believe they said the model was actually there, not photoshopped in. Look closely at the expression of the natives in the background, trying to keep a straight face for the picture.

Friday March 28

Time to visit Puerto Madero, the old sea port (and as you will see "Monday", lots of logs (Madero) go through the Buenos Aires ports). Shortly after it was finished in 1897 cargo ships became larger and did not fit in this "new" port. It was largely abandoned after 1911 when the newer port opened (rusty ships and abandoned warehouses made this area a slum).

Around 1999 developers converted the decayed port into a luxury hotel, apartment, restaurant, and office area.

The signature bridge in the area is unique but sort of ho-hum, until you look closely. The large pier in the middle is a pivot point. The sloping spire has a series of cables diagonally down to the bridge deck, all the way to the next small pier. The whole bridge pivots horizontally to allow ships (or larger sail boats) in and out of the harbor. Under the bridge (just left of the big pier) is a small pier in the distance where the tip of the bridge rests while it is open.

One of the historical naval training ships (sail and power combo) was in the harbor, open to the public daily, for an admission fee of $2 each. But remember this is Argentina pesos, so the admission fee is US 24 cents each. The second sailing ship (another 24 cents each) was not as interesting as the first.

I don't know why Jenny was hanging on so tight - the ship was not moving at all.

Inside we were able to wander the guts of the ship - OSHA has not struck there.

Even Jenny played inside the engine. Not next to the engine, inside it.

These are the actual piston rods for the engine

and to give an idea of the scale, this is 6 foot Charlie

I finally figured out what this is! Power Steering. Look between the chains on the right for the lever labeled 20 - it is the tiller - the arm that moves the rudder left and right. When under sail rather than power, there are two large "steering" wheels on the deck, each operated by two sailors, so this must be a 4 person-power steering system.

Outside La Americana pizzeria (a very popular restaurant) was this life-size statue of a waiter.

Also a statue of a famous barber that took care of aspiring dancers and actors. They often waited in his barber shop for their casting calls. He was so well known that when he died, a statue of him, with his barber chair and telephone, was made on the street near the statue of the waiter, above.

Saturday March 29 - Colonia Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, is across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. It was formerly a Portuguese colony of almost the same name, one of the oldest cities in Uruguay, and is now a World Heritage Site. Travel Tip: There are slow and fast ferries from Buenos Aires, but the cost of a package with a fast ferry round trip ticket (about 1 hour each way), a bus tour of the city with English speaking guide, and a sit-down restaurant lunch, is less than the cost of the ferry ticket purchased separately. Go figure, but see a travel agency several days in advance since the ferry is sometimes sold out. Total cost was about US$165 each.

The ferry company runs several size boats. Ours was a large one with lots of space to walk, and airplane style seat (with legroom).

There is a historical city gate with drawbridge. The original was taken down many years ago as unnecessary, but more recently reconstructed for us tourists.

The city wall included fortifications - note the cannon at the upper right.


You may notice some old cars parked on the street near the church.

There were numerous antique cars parked around town, some of which appeared to be operational

This Opel seemed to be in pretty good condition.

This car was old enough to be questionable, operationally, but an interesting street decoration. The 20,000 people living in this town are a close-knit community, so there would be little risk of vandalism to a car parked like this. Our guide explained that even the dogs wandering around were mostly known, owned, and loved by the community, and given veterinary care by the city.

This car has graduated from car to planter.

As has this car become a planter

and this one has become a storage unit.

Our bus tour included a stop at the bull ring, only used for a few bull fights 100 years ago. It is too weak to safely tour, but they are planning to refurbish it as an arena. When I asked why no bull fighting, since they admire it as a sport, and eat so much beef, the guide said "We don't play with our food."

Not far out of town are some beautiful beaches. March is late fall, so past the peak season, but any beach, anywhere, in any weather, makes Jenny happy.

Near the beach we saw this camper from Austria, apparently designed to handle any terrain.

The owner said it carried 400 liters of water (100 gallons) and 400 liters of fuel. It had been shipped from Austria to the Americas, and they were exploring North and South America.

Back in town you could get to the coast, but not with the wide sandy beaches.

When they needed to build a light house, they recycled the foundation of a convent that had fallen down.

Our guide explained that this street from the town square to the beach was historically the red light district - the lower buildings farther down the street were brothels.

We weren't interested enough to visit a local museum, but walking by their back yard on a nearby street you could see the whale skeleton that they featured.

Sunday March 30

At the end of Sunday Mass at the Cathedral, the ArchBishop took the Sacrament to the door of the Cathedral to bless the city. It was raining so the procession stopped in the doorway, but he pushed ahead to do a good job with his blessing. I don't think the fancy umbrella was protection from the rain.

After church we went to El Zanjón de granados. What's that? A series of old tunnels, sewers and cisterns (built from 1730 onwards) were constructed above a river tributary and provided the base for one of the city's oldest settlements, which later became a family mansion and then tenement housing, and some shops. A businessman bought the property in 1986, discovered the underground ruins, and reconstructed it for historical tours; larger underground rooms can be rented for parties and meetings.

This is the street-level entrance, with the walls reconstructed using the various past construction technologies. Despite being a private museum, the admission/tour was only about US$5 each.

Notice how the grand doorway or arch has been closed to a more modest door, probably in the transition from family mansion to tenement.

The lower level contained many passageways, some over viaducts carrying the historical stream to the river. Others are regular rooms. Some of the passageways were off limit to tourists, since they were under adjacent properties with different owners.

Despite being over a river (or at least a stream) fresh water had to be maintained for the residence. This is the original cistern on the lower level. Each year it had to be opened, drained, silt removed, and the walls cleaned.

There was some light rain, but not enough to slow us down.

As we approached a Sunday market, one of the vendors convinced Jenny to try one of her scarfs. It was worth a picture but not a purchase. The market had lots of antique vendors that would have excited some of our friends.

If you go to Buenos Aires you have to go to a Tango show. We had been warned that the meal often offered with the show varied widely in quality, so we chose to take the show without the meal. Still we were seated at a table.

The tango orchestra was quite good (at least to our non-expert ears. Some of the performers were singers, presumably of local fame.

The orchestra "pit" was actually above the dancing stage. We are not Tango experts, but the dancing seemed as artistic as ballet - I could not imagine people dancing like that at a regular dance open to the public.

Monday March 31 - Tigre

A short train ride away was Tigre, another port city, but this one catering to smaller boats that went up and down the many small rivers to the interior. We enjoyed watching them unload the logs brought downstream, sorting them into larger logs on one truck and smaller logs on another. Note that the boat is half or more unloaded - the water marks on the side of the boat are just inches away from the gunwale - the edge of the boat. No waves, please.

Then on the other side of the harbor boats were being loaded (to the same extreme level) with everything from drinking water, to soda-pop, to food, to fuel, whatever.

Tigre was a pretty little city we enjoyed visiting. This building caught our eye - when we got back the internet identified it as a (ho hum) apartment house.

Tuesday April 1

Tuesday morning we checked our bags at the hotel (to avoid US$10 per hour for late check out), and took a tour of the Colon Theater (near our hotel, named after Christopher Columbus). Our flight home would not leave until 10 pm, but we had access to an airport club (free food and drink), for the evening. We got a direct to Dallas Fort Worth, then on to Austin and home before Wednesday noon.

The theater is nothing short of magnificent

Note the decoration, like more curtains, over the stage

The balconies are all private boxes with great views and acoustics.

More boxes, more balconies.

As everyone knows, I am a sucker for furniture that is nice enough to display.

The hallways are important in a theater for intermissions. Note the doorway at the left in this picture.

That doorway leads to an area with a lower ceiling. To fool the eye, the transom was mirrors into the high ceiling hallway, rather than windows blocked by the lower ceiling. I had trouble believing that it wasn't a window.

Don't ignore the ceilings either. This is in one of the side rooms.

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