This was it then – one week left before flying home, one more week of summertime in which to make the most of BA, pop across to Uruguay and generally ready myself for la gran vuelta to wintry little England.
First day I took myself off for a city centre wander, strolling the streets of the 18th century San Telmo district before striking the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires’ plaza principal and its beating heart, roads leading away arterially towards the Obelisk, Retiro and innumerable other porteño landmarks. The Casa Rosada, Argentinian presidential palace, bordered the plaza on one side; on another lay the neo-classical in which I sought shelter as a charged summer thunderstorm unleashed torrents of rain from the heavens. When things finally dried out I carried on, past the famous Obelisk and across Avenida 9 de Julio, proudly proclaimed as the world’s widest street: an in-your-face fact as you sprint across its 18 lanes, trying not to get atropellado. Buenos Aires’ streets seem purposely designed tests of courage, huge expanses of baking, exposed tarmac willing you to make a mistake as you cross them.
On then past the fantastic Teatro Colon, where I hoped to see some opera later on in the week and thus glimpse the fantastic gilded opulence of the interior; across yet another beautiful square and out into the Plaza de Congreso, dominated by the imposing government headquarters, modelled on Washington’s Capitol. Back to the hostel then, before heading out for drinks with Lucy La’s, an awesome Kiwi girl Marcus and I had met in Huaraz up in Peru almost 5 months previously. We laughed, we chatted about llamas, Margaret Thatcher and anything else under the sun, and generally got tanked in The Gibraltar, a surprisingly convincing ‘English’ pub in San Telmo.
Next day was a bit of a struggle. We’d spent the night in an airless, fanless sweatbox of a room and were both feeling decidedly ropey. Nothing for it then but to embark on a day of culture…We headed for La Recoleta, the city’s aristocratic enclave and home to what must surely be the world’s most OTT cemetery, a vast necropolis of multistorey mausolea where the city’s wealthy can rest eternally, away from the hoi polloi. Evita’s in there; so too is Sarmiento. We spent a surreal hour wandering the lanes of this city of the dead.
Back out in the land of the living we nosed around a couple of churches before heading into the Museo de Bellas Artes, which housed a collection of works by Old Masters and more modern Argentinian artists. The MALBA, Buenos Aires’ modern art museum and a definite star attraction in the city, was up next. The building is fantastic, an enhancement to the quality of the work on show, whilst the art itself was funky. Lucy and I necked a couple of double espressos and whizzed our way round, up and down the three floors, bouncing off the walls as we did and pausing for just enough time to jump around, bouncy castle style, in one of the exhibits – a cube made entirely of roped-together mattresses Fun!
Back to Recoleta for the final step of our whirlwind cultural tour, La Fuerza Bruta, which was fantastic…and almost impossible to describe. Part dance, part performing art, it involved: a guy running on an enormous treadmill, having to avoid garden furniture that came hurtling his way and occasionally being shot, poor chappie; a couple of girls half dancing, half running their way sideways across the vast room’s walls; there were also four or five señoritas sliding and jumping around in a shallow transparent pool suspended above our heads. Very random. Any very very cool. It ended with a DJ whipping up the crowd, blaring a massive klaxon as we were all sprayed with water.
There you go, told you it was indescribable!
Next day I hopped on a train and headed to Tigre, a town just beyond BA’s northern limits, set amongst the innumerable rivers, streams and marshes that make up the delta of the Rio Plata, the world’s largest. It was pouring with rain when I arrived, seemingly not quite the right day on which to leave the city and enjoy the great outdoors. Fortunately within the hour things had dried up, the clouds had broken and another baking hot summer’s day was mine to enjoy. I bought myself a ferry ticket to Uruguay for later in the day and set off along the riverside promenade in search of Tigre’s art museum. The air was fresh, clean and riverine, a refreshing change after the oppressive muggy heat of Buenos Aires, so I happily ambled my way along, making the most of the rays, before popping my head into the National Naval Museum, which housed a pleasingly stuffy collection of model ships, oil paintings – of ships, naturally – and some rather odder exhibits, including a midget submarine, pickled baby whales in jars and a display on the Falklands War. Needless to say, where in the UK it means very little to people these days, over in Argentina they’re still a little miffed.
Back out in the sunshine I wandered on, coming eventually to the art museum, housed in Tigre’s former casino and exclusive member’s club, a beautiful turn-of-the-century mansion set on the riverbank. A quick spin round the rooms and then back to the harbour in time for the boat. Country number 10, the last on the list to tick off, was only a couple of hours sail away. After the hundreds of buses I’d travelled on over the previous eight months, boat voyaging was going to be novel.
The scenery that unfolded as we sped along the waterways in the catamaran was blissfully fluvial, tree and reed-lined riverbanks eventually giving way to the wide slate-grey expanse of the mouth of the Plata river. And then there it was: little old Uruguay. It was at this point that my lack of planning finally caught up with me; I’d arrived in Carmelo, and needed to get to Colonia del Sacramento, a 90 minute bus ride away. It was already gone 8pm. I tried two companies: no more buses that day. Beginning to despair a little – I was only going to be in Uruguay for one night after all – I was finally in luck with the third and last bus company. It wouldn’t be leaving until 10.30pm, getting me into Colonia past midnight, but it’d have to do.
Having made it I was up the next morning bright and early; a light breakfast and then out to wander Colonia’s cobbled streets. I’d planned on giving myself a couple of hours to fully explore the centro historico, but it turned out to be so delightfully lilliputian that after an hour I’d seen all there was to see and thereafter took myself along the seafront, making my way through thick subtropical vegetation before coming out onto an almost deserted beach. Lying there, basking happily, without a care in the world, it was almost impossible to get my head round the fact that I was going to be in bleak midwinter England in under five days. Time came to head back to Carmelo and from there back to Tigre. It had been the briefest of brief visits to Uruguay, less than 24 hours all told, but still time enough to get a taste of its underrated, understated tranquilo charms.
Back in the concrete jungle of BA I dropped my kit off back at the hostel, smartened up as best I could and headed out to the theatre, to hopefully catch that opera performance. The theatre staff, however, had other plans – they were on strike. NO option then but to head to Palermo (the city district, not the Sicilian mafioso hotspot), meet up with Lucy and sample the bonaerense nightlife. Also just checked into Lucy’s hostel was Sanna, an impossibly blonde, and equally cute, Swedish girl. Drinks, tequila shots and some blurry memories of a random Buenos Aires superclub.
Next day I hoiked my stuff across town, checked into the Palermo hostel and Lucy and I then lazily meandered our way through the acres of parks in the area, stumbling upon countless joggers and exercise fanatics, a group of hippies kumbaya-ing in a circle, and some bemasked Mexican-style wrestlers shooting an awful low-budget film – BA is just one of those cities.
At the hostel a party was in full swing, so in we dived, not resurfacing until gone 9am, with the sun glaring mercilessly down upon a poor tired Englishman. The plan was to go see Boca play that night, so recharging batteries was going to have to be next on the agenda.
Well the plan happened, me leading a merry band of five Aussie lads and Lucy off in the direction of La Bonbonera, despite us all feeling like death warmed up. Hopefully it was going to be plain sailing. Hmmm.
Having safely negotiated the metro – step one complete – we caught a taxi to the stadium, which helpfully dropped us all in the midst of the away fans. A good start. Time now to get tickets off touts, and since I was the only one who spoke Spanish I was going to have to do all the talking, a role I wasn’t exactly looking forward to with relish. Anyway, we sorted 4 tickets; that left another 5 to get, now that a couple of English guys in the same boat had joined our merry band. Time to play follow the tout for us five, as he led us past security and towards the turnstiles. Almost there. Until, with 20 metres to go, a hairy-knuckled hand grabbed the tout by the shoulder: “policia.”
Fiddlesticks. The tout and I were taken to one side, details taken down, the policeman smiling nonchalantly as he told us we wouldn’t be seeing the game. We were so close – we could see the stands, see the fans, hear the noise, feel the atmosphere…and this copper looked like the type who wasn’t down with a bit of money changing hands.
I was wrong. Having resigned ourselves to the long unsatisfied walk back, we were suddenly given the green light. God bless corrupt South America and its chronically underpaid security forces! On to the turnstiles then, and through I went, ushered through by the tout as he wafted his club card back and forth across the scanner. Through came one of the Aussies, and then another, though this was taking far longer than expected. And then it happened – lightning struck for a second time. With two of the guys still on the wrong side of the turnstiles the tout did a runner. With the cash. The fellas on the gate, no matter how much we pleaded, weren’t going to let the others through. There we were, three on one side, two on the other, stuck in footballing no an’s land as the match kicked off. Rowlocks.
One of the English lads, after a quarter of an hour’s wait, was let through. Sweet. That left just Paul, the cricket-loving Aussie, on the other side, surrounded by a motley crew of dodgy customers. Let it just be said that Boca is no Recoleta: it’s working class, poor and downright dangerous at night. We couldn’t exactly leave him to trudge home, so two of the guys headed up the stairs so as to at least get a taste of the action before we all hit the road. Another time…
Instead, as we were turning to leave, they let him in. Awopdopadoowopawopbamboo! Game on! Once in the atmosphere was electric; the quality of the football not quite so. We were behind one of the goals in the ‘zona popular’ with all the proper fabs who didn’t seem to even draw breath between chants. Amazing fun. And Boca won 1-0, so everyone, Quilmes fans aside, went home happy.
Monday, my penultimate 24 hours in South America, and time to but final presents, have a last wander round Downtown and then head back to Palermo to meet up with Euge from Mendoza, who was in town for a wedding. It was my last night in Buenos Aires, last night in Argentina, last night in South America – I needed a gorgeous latina to see me off 🙂
Tuesday then: flight day. I spent it lazing, reading, stocking up and spending my last few hours with Euge. Time came, eventually, to leave. Metro to Retiro, bus to the airport and on back to Europe. I was leaving summer behind and heading to a good old-fashioned English winter, with my one jumper to keep me warm.
Buenos Aires to Madrid; Madrid to Heathrow; and there they were, my two beloved parentals waiting for me. It was over.
It had been fantastic and fantastical. It had been incredible, almost indescribably so….i’ll try my best:
I’d gone north to south, east to west, from the Caribbean to Patagonia, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I’d set foot, Guianas aside, in every South American nation. I’d been high – 6088m – I’d been low. I’d been soaked by tropical rain in Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil; I’d been scorched in the Atacama Desert, driest place on Earth. I’d ventured deep into the Amazon rainforest, high into the Andes, been to both the highest capital (La Paz) and the highest city (Potosi) in the world, both in Bolivia. I’d tried llama, eaten guinea pig (and probably tried a whole host of other poor unfortunate critters in stews and the like), drunk Andean homebrew and danced the salsa, badly. I’d burned myself innumerable times, almost frozen solid up in the mountains and summited Ecuadorian Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. I’d seen ancient ruins, swum in Caribbean and Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, wandered round timeless colonial villages and been engulfed in latin metropolises. I’d travelled with one of my best mates; I’d travelled solo. I’d laughed; I’d cried. I’d had euphoric highs; I’d had catatonic lows. It had been, in short, the trip of a lifetime – the best 8 and a bit months of my life.
Yet it had been so so much more than a mere reeling off of lists, of places to tick off. South America is a continent that gets under your skin, into your dreams. An itch you can’t stop scratching. It’s frustrating, corrupt, unequal and yet more alive, more exuberantly, defiantly vivo than anywhere else. Music drives the rhythm, the rhythm drives the fiesta, and life is one long fiesta. So relax, unwind, dive in and let la magia latina into your life, into your soul – the best decision you will ever make.
Que Dios te bendiga Sudamérica, continente de sueños, de ilusiones irreales y realidades increibles. ¡Hasta la próxima!