Buenos Aires

Saying goodbye is really hard.

I flew into Buenos Aires on a Saturday night. After traversing the entire length of the continent, a few days in B.A. was my victory lap before flying home. What a perfect place to finish.

Buenos Aires is one of those cities everyone talks about so affectionately, but never in concrete terms. I didn’t know what to expect going in but it turned out to be one of my favorite places on the trip – easily tied with Cusco as my favorite city.

Though I’ve certainly inhaled worse, the air in B.A. is one of the few things I wouldn’t describe as bueno. The gargantuan Argentinean capitol is a true gem – rivaling London and New York in terms of culture, diversity and that special something that you can’t put your finger on. More than a just sprawling metropolis where a bunch of people live, it is a living, breathing entity in and of itself, with so much to explore and discover.

I had a good feeling about it right away. 

Waiting for the local bus to take me into town, I talked with a sweet old lady next to me. I told her where I was going and in true Argentinean spirit she made it her mission to make sure I got there. She introduced me to half of the young people on the bus, so that by the time my stop came up everyone at once was telling me to get off and enjoy my stay in the city. Pretty beautiful stuff.

I made some quick friends at the hostel who invited me out on the town with them. Though I wanted to take them up my body was shutting down out of pure exhaustion (I had hiked for 6 hours that morning in Ushuaia, and three days straight in Chile just before that).

I woke up the next morning anxious to see this enormous town.

Since arriving the previous night I had learned that not only was Eoghan (Gaelic, pronounced “Owen”), my Irish friend from Peru, in Bueno Aires, but so were James and Graham, the Americans I met with the same group. The Gringo Trail never fails to amaze me. We vaguely planned on getting together that evening.

On the recommendation of Don and Allison, the sweet old couple from Punta Arenas, I had been told not to miss the San Telmo market that happens every Sunday. With a little help from the hostel I was able to find the bus quite easily.

With the market not really kicking off until noon, I was a little early. As if it were meant to be, at the south end of the market, I found myself in front of a record store.

With no more travels ahead of me, I could finally purchase souvenirs without the concern of size, weight, or fragility. I spent well over an hour picking through the racks of old records, wishing I could afford it all. I had a cool interaction with the store owner, a classic music geek. Upon my request he showed me some cool tango records to listen to, one of which I purchased.

The other treasure I couldn’t resist getting is an Argentinean copy of the White Album, numbered from the first pressing and complete with Spanish liner notes and textured cover text reading “Los Beatles.” It has to be the coolest thing I bought the entire trip. With no Argentinean currency on me, I had my friend store my records aside until I returned. I didn’t need to be carrying vinyl around the market anyway.

When I emerged things were picking up in San Telmo. 

Officially called an antique market, the weekly event is so much more. Stretching the entire length of the barrio, the market has everything from food and artisan crafts to buskers, free tango shows, and so much more.

One plaza on the street has scores of stalls where local dress up in a theme – including Ghostbusters, Grease, Aladdin, gauchos, San Martin, and Pope Francis – and simply ask for tips when people want a photo with them. I was getting a feel for the local culture, which above all things is into having fun.

Still without pesos, and motivated to find the best of what the market had to offer, I walked the entire length without buying anything but keeping my eyes peeled for what I liked.

At the other end I made a quick detour to Avenida Florida, where I’d been told I could get the best rate for my Blue Dollars. As promised, I found someone right away, negotiated a rate of 9.5 pesos to the dollar, and was showed into the hidden back room of a news stand where I was able to examine the legitimacy of the bills under a bright florescent light.

I headed back to San Telmo and the shopping commenced. 

I didn’t end up coming out with all that much but found a couple really unique maté gourds and a really interesting art piece by a guy who interprets Beatles songs into mixed media collages. The fact that I collected two Beatles-related souvenirs in the same day was a complete coincidence, though perhaps telling that the Argentineans are big fans of classic rock.

After picking up and paying for my records I walked past the Buenos Aires Museum of Contemporary Art and couldn’t think of a reason not to go in.

It was relatively small, but well curated with a really cool exhibition on psychedelic art from Argentina in the ’60s and ’70s and a huge installation where you essentially walk through a seemingly pitch dark room until your eyes adjust to the most subtle sources of colored light around you. Another installation in a large space two stories underground was simply an enormous metal shipping container, propped up diagonally so that it barely fit into the room. Nothing more than a factory-made shipping container, I think the only point of the work is to get people to ask, How the f**k did they get this down here?

When I returned to the hostel the best surprise of all was waiting for me.  

On top of all the other guys who happened to be in Buenos Aires at the same time as me, Santiago had just arrived in town, having taken a morning flight on a whim. The Buenos Aires native (living in London for the past five years) somehow wanted to hang out with us upon returning to his home.

Originally expecting that my last few days in South America would be mellow and unexceptional, I really couldn’t have asked for a better way for things to happen. Situations have so consistently worked out like this that I’ve really begun to believe on the legitimacy of fate. When all the homies from up the road got together again it was like a family reunion, but with even more shenanigans.

I rested for a couple hours before meeting the group at a hip English pub called Gibraltar. 

Thanks to a very generous happy hour and some incredible fish and chips, we stayed at Gibraltar for much of the night. Santi and I have become particularly close and we did a lot of catching up. Not yet telling his family that he had arrived in town, he was excited to explore his own city as a tourist and show me a good time along the way.

Our group shrunk as we moved on, taking us to a restaurant-bar with an excellent live trio playing classic rock tunes – it’s a big thing down here. Santi described a popular rock-loving subculture known as Rollitos, named in homage to the Rolling Stones. We drank sangria until the band stopped playing.

Properly drunk at this point, we were in high spirits but struggling to find a new place to go that was open at 3 a.m. We were about to give up and go home when we were found by a guy selling beer from the back of his bicycle – smart businessman. Happy as could be to each have a cold pint in our hands, we sat down at the nearest logical place, which turned out to be the stoop of a primary school.

I’m not certain this is how it started, but at some point Graham started beat boxing, and with no one willing to attempt freestyling, Eoghan started singing in Gaelic. Then we all started adding our own “instruments” to the sound until we had the most original music the streets of Buenos Aires have ever heard. 

We would occasionally mix in parts of songs we knew, notably Bobby McFarrin’s rendition of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but it was largely our own invention. It may just sound like drunken foolery, and it definitely was that, but it was also something more. When people say “we make beautiful music together,” this must be what they meant. With our beers finished and no more beer-bikes in sight, we broke up the band and returned to our respective hostels.

Predictably, I woke up hung over.

Santi must have woke up around the same time, because as soon as I opened Facebook he sent me a message, inviting me to meet at a cafe down the street from my hostel. While getting there at 11 a.m. was a little ambitious for the way I was feeling, my time in South America was rapidly ticking away and I wasn’t about to turn down a guided tour of the city with a local. 

Cafe Tortoni was a classy joint. The old space was once the hangout for journalists, artists and other important figures in Twentieth Century Buenos Aires. Many are remembered with pictures and busts scattered around the large cafe – we sat next to a scary wax model of Jorge Louis Borges. We paid a solid $5 for our tiny cappuccinos but the experience was well worth the price.

From there we wandered around the downtown center, checking out the Casa Rosario, which means Pink House and is the Argentinean equivalent of the White House. Then we caught a subway to Palermo. 

Palermo is a cool neighborhood with green parks, beautiful old buildings and trendy restaurants. We hung out in a bookstore before grabbing lunch. Asking Santi what his favorite Argentinean dish was, I decided to order milanesa, which is essentially a thin cut of steak that is breaded and fried. I plan on returning to my normal diet when I get home, but I had to try the famous Argentinean beef and see what the deal is. I don’t have a lot of experience to compare it to but I can appreciate the quality of meat that is well raised and well prepared. 

Our tour continued with a long walk to MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinamericano de Buenos Aires), a beautiful building that houses some amazing modern and contemporary art, including works by Latin Americans like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. I really enjoyed the paintings of Argentineans Antonio Berni and Xul Solar. 

Finally, we caught a taxi to barrio Almagro where we’d be seeing a concert. 

After buying our tickets we had some time to kill. Casual friends Santi’s owned a vintage clothing shop down the street and we walked there to see if they were there. When we got there we were immediately invited in to catch up and drink maté. 

Maté is such a cool drink. The dry yerba tea leaves are poured inside of a fist-sized gourd, which gets shaken to evenly distribute the finer particles. The bombilla, a silver straw, is placed in the gourd and acts as a filter to the leaves. Hot water, not boiling, is poured over the leaves. Each pour is about contains one or two large sips, which are taken by an individual before being refilled and passed to the next person. The leaves last for a good 15 pours, and it is a true social drink as it is cycled around the group. 

I didn’t always know what was being said in the fast, accented conversation but it was a neat experience to hang out exactly how Argentineans hang out. 

We got to the concert shortly after doors opened. 

KONEX, the venue, is a giant outdoor concert space. An opener was playing more classic rock. This night’s entertainment, La Bomba de Tiempo, is a huge Afro-Latin percussion band that plays every monday and it’s quite the party. Finally rid of our hangovers we jumped right back in with the first of many liter-size beers. We ran into a couple of Irish guys we’d met through Eoghan the previous night, who may well be two of the funniest people I’ve met on the road. We later found Eoghan himself as well. 

The band was hands down amazing. With over a dozen people on stage, they produced quite the large and complex sound. As soon as the music started there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t dancing. The double set lasted several hours and nobody wanted it to be over. Thankfully it didn’t have to be. 

As the massive gate opened to the street, several members of the band grabbed their drums and started playing in the middle of the road. 

With most of the crowd still gathered, the drummers started marching down the street. Clearly not the first time this had happened, there were countless bike venders waiting to sell beers to the crowd as we were led to the after party venue several blocks away. Some people were spinning flares, everyone was still dancing to the music, having the time of their lives and completely blocking traffic. 

We were filed up stairs to a small, dark club. Because the Gringo Trail is strong, I once again ran into someone I knew: Michelle from my road trip in Salta. Since seeing her nearly three weeks ago I had traveled to the southernmost point of the continent while she had been to Brazil and back. This has happened too much to even be called coincidence. 

We would be disappointed to find the band wasn’t coming on anytime soon but I got to catch up with a friend, also buying some delicious vegetarian sandwiches with Santi on the rooftop terrace. With everyone getting tired, we left shortly before the band got started again. Along with Eoghan we caught a bus back to San Telmo from where I’d walk back to the hostel.

Fully aware this was my last night in Buenos Aires – and therefore in South America – I was struck with the painful reality that this was the beginning of the end. 

Completely sober from this realization, I walked home as slow as possible, trying to soak in every last essence of the city, the country, the continent. The frustrating irony was that the extreme sense of happiness I was feeling – and had felt for the past two months – made me so, so sad because it was about to be over. I knew I had things to look forward to and that I can find happiness anywhere, but, especially in that moment, nothing inside of me wanted to go home. If this trip had one more lesson to teach me it would be how to walk away from something I love. 

My last day in South America arrived. 

I took my time that morning, methodically packing my bag, discarding things I no longer needed. Due to the water heater being replaced at the hostel, my last shower would be my first without hot water. My one plan for the day was to visit the famous cemetery in Recoleta, which seems tragically poetic in retrospect. Santi said he would meet me there. 

I took the bus and and wandered the narrow rows of tombs. Even more impressive than the cemetery in Punta Arenas, this one had some of the fanciest graves money could buy, with more than a few famous Argentineans resting there. After getting my fill I emerged to find Santi along with Graham. The latter was waiting to meet up with James and others, but Santi and I took a long walk around the area, checking out the national art museum and the state-funded law school housed in a very impressive building. 

We grabbed coffees and looked into a bus to take us to La Boca, the one neighborhood I wanted to see but hadn’t. I’m not sure how much fun I was to be with because I was irrevocably bummed to be leaving. After walking a long ways to where we’d catch a bus I realized we didn’t have time to do it. Instead we took the subway to my hostel and retrieved my bag, got the scoop on getting to the airport, walked back to Gibraltar where we were meeting the whole group for a last goodbye. 

Having finally spilled the beans on his arrival, Santi’s brother and sister both showed up at the bar as well, giving me the chance to meet them. I ate those amazing fish and chips again, drank several beers, and played pool with James, Graham and Eoghan. After so many losses over this trip I walked away with a win. I felt like rich man for the friends I’d gained in my travels. 

Eventually, it came time to leave. 

I had a warm goodbye with Santi and the gang, blocking from my mind that this was the end. As luck had it, Graham’s brother and his girlfriend, who had been visiting for a couple weeks, were also flying home that night and we were able to split the very expensive cab ride to the international airport three ways. 

That was it. One minute I was a world away, 12 hours later I was back in Colorado. I’m still dealing with the shock of it. I will need some time to process the significance of all that happened, but I can say now that this was the most important two months of my life. I hope I’ve done an okay job of sharing it. 

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