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Hello, Buenos Aires!

We arrived in the capital of Argentina on a beautifully sunny and warm afternoon. Instantly, we could see the difference between this and other cities we’d seen in South America – we could have been wandering around any city in Europe!

The architecture, the clothing, the shops - it was so far removed from the rest of South America we’d seen. In fact, Buenos Aires is sometimes called South America’s Paris.

The architecture, the clothing, the shops – it was so far removed from the rest of South America we’d seen. In fact, Buenos Aires is sometimes called South America’s Paris.

A lively city, Porteño (people from Buenos Aires) are proud that there’s something different to see or do every night of the week. Monday night is all about La Bomba de Tiempo – a percussion group that we’d been told by several fellow travellers (and guidebooks) that we simply had to see. Having already been wowed by a samba school’s bateria in Rio, I was looking forward to this.

It was amazing how many different ‘songs’ the musicians in La Bomba were able to make, just by switching up the rhythm. Everything they played made us want to move to the music – and we could see it did with everyone else too, as people danced as if entranced by the beat.

What was most impressive was that nothing we saw was rehearsed – the whole point of La Bomba is that it’s spontaneous and improvised. It’s the conductor at the centre of it all who conveys to each section of drums when they should start and stop, at what tempo they should play and how they should play their instrument. He does this with a flurry of hand gestures and all of the players respond to his every move.

What was most impressive was that nothing we saw was rehearsed – the whole point of La Bomba is that it’s spontaneous and improvised. It’s the conductor at the centre of it all who conveys to each section of drums when they should start and stop, at what tempo they should play and how they should play their instrument. He does this with a flurry of hand gestures and all of the players respond to his every move.

Although it was impressive and fun, I didn’t get the same feeling of awe as I did with the Brazilian bateria. The party atmosphere was missing from La Bomba, and the venue in Rio was closed – so the sound of the drums reverberated around the whole room better than they did in this open arena. Something that tainted the experience for us was that it seemed like the majority of the audience were students intent on getting drunk (on various substances) – whereas the samba school seemed more like a joyful celebration. Even so, watching La Bomba perform was still an experience we were glad we took the time to see.

The next day, Dale was up bright and early to catch a morning ferry to neighbouring Uruguay. It wasn’t just to get an extra stamp in his passport (although that was a bonus), it was because the quaint seaside town of Colonia is the nearest place we could get our hands on all-important American dollar bills.

Months before we’d arrived in Argentina, we’d been tipped off by many other travellers that the country’s unofficial ‘blue’ exchange rate can pay nearly double the amount of pesos for dollars than the official rate offered by banks.  The higher (and newer) the bill, the better the rate you can negotiate on the street – with crisp $100 bills getting the highest return.

The quick explanation for this is because the US has banned Argentina from buying dollars due to the unfortunate state of its economy – so Argentinians aren’t able to get dollars legally. Because the Argentinian Peso isn’t particularly stable, many are clamouring to change their savings into dollars to protect their money from the fluctuating value of their own currency – which has created quite a healthy black (or blue) market for USD on the street.

The quick explanation for this is because the US has banned Argentina from buying dollars due to the unfortunate state of its economy – so Argentinians aren’t able to get dollars legally. Because the Argentinian Peso isn’t particularly stable, many are clamouring to change their savings into dollars to protect their money from the fluctuating value of their own currency – which has created quite a healthy black (or blue) market for USD on the street.

We’d come prepared with a few 100 dollar bills that we’d nervously carried with us since Ecuador, but we were worried that we’d need more. Wanting to save our precious blue-rate pesos, I’d elected to forgo the ferry trip, so Dale will explain his trip to Uruguay…

After a quick hour’s boat ride, I arrived in Colonia and joined a massive tour group that was visiting the historical centre of the town. There were at least 30 people in the English-speaking group alone and the guide even mentioned that more people visit this place every year than the entire population of Uruguay!

While on the tour, I could see the appeal of the town – it was very pretty with cobbled streets, pretty plazas and old buildings. We also had our own protection – a pack of stray dogs followed us and seemed to be protecting the group, barking at any locals or cars that dared come anywhere near us!

The town was very pretty and quiet. In the bottom left you can see some old cars that have been converted into booths for a restaurant

The town was very pretty and quiet. In the bottom left you can see some old cars that have been converted into booths for a restaurant

After the tour, it was time for the straightforward task of withdrawing some dollars from the cash machines. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped. First, all of the ATMs were hidden away inside the banks – which were all closed until the afternoon. Second, when they did open, huge queues formed – I think everyone else was there to do the same as me! Third, none of the cash machines seemed to like any of the cards I’d brought with me.

After what seemed like my fifth lap of the eight banks in the neighbourhood, I found one cash machine that finally coughed up some notes. Even then I couldn’t withdraw much because Colonia’s ATMs have a limit on the number of dollars you can take out – to stop people doing exactly what I was trying to do.

At one point I queued for 20 minutes to use a cash machine, only to find that the woman in front of me had left her card in the slot. I grabbed it and ran down the street after her, but – not speaking much Spanish – she didn’t understand and thought I was asking her where the nearest cash point was! After a lot of hand gestures and waving the card in her face she eventually realised, but I was gone long enough to lose my place in the queue and when I got back it was twice as long. If you’re wondering, that one didn’t work anyway!

At one point I queued for 20 minutes to use a cash machine, only to find that the woman in front of me had left her card in the slot. I grabbed it and ran down the street after her, but – not speaking much Spanish – she didn’t understand and thought I was asking her where the nearest cash point was! After a lot of hand gestures and waving the card in her face she eventually realised, but I was gone long enough to lose my place in the queue and when I got back it was twice as long. If you’re wondering, that one didn’t work anyway!

So, Colonia was a nice town and very pretty. It was just a shame I spent most of my time there wandering around searching for ATMs and looking like a dodgy fraudster with three different cash cards…

…Meanwhile, being blissfully unaware of Dale’s ATM troubles, I decided to spend the day exploring some of the features of Buenos Aires I didn’t think he would appreciate – starting with the Evita museum.

Evita's image on a skyscraper in the city - she's still a much-loved figure here

Evita’s image on a skyscraper in the city – she’s still a much-loved figure here

I didn’t really know much about Eva Peron before going to the museum. I’d known the general movie-based story of a young girl who’d gone to Buenos Aires to find fame and fortune and ended up marrying the president, but I didn’t know anything about how she’d changed the country and become Argentina’s ‘spiritual leader’ before her untimely death.

Walking around the museum I was amazed by what I learned. From humble beginnings raised by her destitute single mother, she became a recognised radio star, created her own foundation to help those in poverty and represented her country on a trade mission to Europe – all before she was 30-years-old.

Top left is a famous image of Evita overcome with emotion after a passionate crowd call her name. The museum also showed some of her beautiful dresses that she wore on official occasions and her death mask - showing just how young she was when she died.

Top left is a famous image of Evita overcome with emotion after a passionate crowd call her name. The museum also showed some of her beautiful dresses that she wore on official occasions and her death mask – showing just how young she was when she died.

During her lifetime she also supported women’s rights – helping women secure the vote, had a hand in introducing laws to protect the working class (her beloved ‘shirtless ones’) and helped revolutionise the social work industry in Argentina. Seeing the emotional reaction that she garnered from the crowds of people that would come out on the streets to see her and her husband on old reels of film was particularly moving. Towards the end of her life, many even called for her to become the President herself – but she quickly grew very ill and died at the age of 33 from cancer.

Of course the museum didn’t mention any of the more controversial elements of her life, but after learning about this remarkable lady I was keen to pay my respects at her family tomb.

Walking through the quiet and neat graveyard I realised how strange it is that she rests in La Recoleta Cemetery, which is actually the resting place for many of Argentina’s historical military heroes  and wealthy elite – putting her alongside many of the people she’d fundamentally disagreed with in life. Afterwards, I learned that she’s there at her family’s wish – she had actually wanted to remain embalmed in her office, not willing to be separated from her shirtless ones.

Evita's tomb at Recoleta Cemetery

Evita’s tomb at Recoleta Cemetery

I had a far more relaxing day than Dale, but after we’d met back up in the evening we headed to our next activity together – it takes two to tango!

I couldn’t visit Buenos Aires without seeing some of the famous tango action and had managed to get a good deal for an hour-long tango lesson, followed by dinner with a tango show by professional dancers. After dragging Dale along with the promise of a three-course meal and unlimited booze, we were shown to a room already filled with a mostly-female crowd.

The instructor, who was one of the professional dancers we would be watching later, was superb at showing everyone the basic steps to a short routine but, but because there was only a handful of male participants (and far more women in need of a partner), each man (including Dale) had to dance with at least three different women!

Dale trying out the steps

Dale trying out the steps and then testing out his new moves on an unsuspecting girl, who promptly fell all over the place

I haven’t tried a lot of dances, but tango is incredibly difficult. We were only taught some very basic moves and I was struggling not to look stupid – especially when we had to pull our best ‘sexy face’.

When we were safely sat down and halfway through our delicious steak dinner, the dancers took to the stage and showed us how tango is actually meant to look.

It was incredibly impressive how quickly they moved through the elaborate steps. The women especially made very beautiful shapes, twirling around the men and flicking their legs all over the place!

It was incredibly impressive how quickly they moved through the elaborate steps. The women especially made very beautiful shapes, twirling around the men and flicking their legs all over the place!

The live band was brilliant too - the whole experience was a lot of fun!

The live band was brilliant too – the whole experience was a lot of fun!

The next day we took a tour of the city and the guide proudly showed us much of Buenos Aires’ landmark buildings, including the Casa Rosada (Pink House) where Evita and her husband made many of their public appearances.

Apparently only Evita and her husband traditionally made speeches from the balcony of the Pink House - no politician did it before or has done since

Apparently only Evita and her husband traditionally made speeches from the balcony of the Pink House – no politician did it before or has done since

A familiar site across Argentina - stalls selling Yerba Mate pots. It's a kind of tea and Argentinian's drink it EVERYWHERE. They even have special cases to carry it around with them!

A familiar site across Argentina – stalls selling Yerba Mate pots. It’s a kind of tea and Argentinian’s drink it EVERYWHERE. They even have special cases to carry it around with them!

Our guide also explained what life was like for people under the military regime, when people would mysteriously disappear without a trace. Scarily, the events he told us about were only around 40 years ago – and a group called the ‘Mothers of Plaza de Mayo’ still protests every week for the recovery of their missing children’s bodies.

Some of the sights we saw around Buenos Aires. The symbol painted on the floor in the top right image is the symbol of the Band of Mothers

Some of the sights we saw around Buenos Aires. The top left image is Plaza de Mayo and the symbol painted on the floor in the top right image is the symbol of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo

Our last stop was to Eva Peron’s old offices, where we were able to meet a man that had personally worked with Evita and had collected hundreds of newspaper clippings and photographs. He spoke so movingly of her and again I was wowed by the hold she still has over her people’s hearts.

Our last stop was to Eva Peron’s old offices, the CGT, where we were able to meet a man that had personally worked with Evita and had collected hundreds of newspaper clippings and photographs. He spoke so movingly of her and again I was wowed by the hold she still has over her people’s hearts.

We weren’t in Buenos Aires for long, but both of us were pleasantly surprised by how much we’d enjoyed our visit. Although there are parts you shouldn’t visit and – as with any big city – you should always be mindful of your belongings, we were very happy just to wander the streets and take in the atmosphere. The Tango experience was a particular highlight, but there was so much more we didn’t do – we’ll just have to return one day to see some more.

The Pink House at night... looking extremely pink

The famous Pink House at night… looking extremely pink

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