While in Buenos Aires we got to experience a lot of the cities famous art, culture, and festivities. As the days got longer and warmer heading towards summer, the city came alive with various events, parties, and rallys. From enjoying the beautiful Jacaranda trees in full bloom and participating in a once monthly ‘bike party’, to touring a wide range of interesting museums during the annual ‘Night at the Museum’ and taking in a variety of epic architectural sites. We even had the chance to check out a huge political rally and I also would spend a day touring some of the cities famous worker self managed co-ops, known as recovered factories or businesses. Below you will find just some of the things we saw and did during November in Buenos Aires.
Latin American Museum of Modern Art
Maggie and I really enjoyed our visit to the Latin American Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires, known as the MALBA. Housed in an interesting contemporary building on the boarder of the Palermo and Recoleta districts, the museum exclusively focuses on 20th and 21st century Latin American art.
Featured movements include modernism, kinetic art, minimalism, social realism, surrealism, destructuve art and hyperrealism. The main exhibit focused on Latin American life through geography, politics, and the city. It was right up my alley and one of the best museum experiences I’ve had. It’s a fairly small place with just three galleries, but the quality of the content makes up for the size.
Maggie convinced me to take some Tango lessons with her, and it ended up being a really fun experience. Tango was in Buenos Aires and is a huge part of the culture. There are actually two versions you will see, the romanticized version that you see on tv and can be found in the more touristy areas, often as shows, or the more traditional version where people get together at Tango Halls, or Milongas, and dance the night away.
While walking through La Glorieta park in the Barrancas de Belgrano neighborhood one evening, we came across and gawked at a large group of locals dancing the Tango in a gazebo. It looked like they were having a lot of fun and we decided we should try it ourselves, so Maggie did some research and found a lesson for us to learn some moves.
We met Alejandro Puerta for our private lesson. It was an awesome and fascinating experience as he taught us the very complex and interesting history of the Tango, and then moved on to teach us some basic moves. We would listen to different examples and then practice either together or with him. It wasn’t easy, but I think we did pretty well. The way you dance with emotion, with me having to lead and Maggie completely letting go was a fun challenge. We were having so much fun that our time was up before we knew it. We would practice with each other throughout the rest of our stay, but never did have the courage to try it in public. I think it would have taken a few more lessons, for me anyway, to get there.
I toured the beautiful Columbus Theatre along with my parents when they were visiting. Located in the San Nicolás barrio, better known as El Centro, it is rated as one of the top 3 opera houses in the world and also ranked as one of the top 5 concert venues for acoustics. The theatre took over 20 years to complete before finally opening in 1903, the hard work and craftsmanship surely paid off.
The Night of the Museums
This was a special evening, and something that we just happened to stumble upon, although it was hard not to as it was truly city wide. The Night of the Museums is a once yearly event where streets and sidewalks of the barrios are offered to the people to go around the city and search for diverse cultural experiences. With the official support of the city and public transportation, there are no fees charged for anyone.
We had decided to go to the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art (MAMBA) in the late afternoon after walking around the historic San Telmo neighborhood. Inside the old tobacco factory turned museum, we glimpsed at the over 7,000 pieces of art on display, including some by artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. Once we were done though, we stepped outside and the real magic started to happen. In front of the museum the Buenos Aires Philharmonic Orchestra had set up and began playing a free show! We then headed down the street a bit and stumbled upon a parade of kids and teens drumming and dancing down the street. That’s when we asked some people what was going on, and found out it was the Night of the Museums.
Wishing at this point that we had preparred, we decided to just keep walking and see what we stumbled upon. It wasn’t hard, as there were literally events and musuems to be found everywhere. We first stopped at a display and museum inside of the Department of Agriculture, then headed to the waterfront in Puerto Madero and toured a nautical museum aboard the frigate Sarmiento. Just down the road the main Plaza de Mayo was a buzz with activity, as all the surrounding government buildings and museums were open to tour. We decided to stop in the City Hall as well as the City Legislature buildings, both beautiful classic Baroque and Renaissance inspired structures.
Next we stopped by the National Train Museum to tour an elegant 19th century steam train that had allowed people to travel what was once one of the world’s largest rail networks, in style. Inside were somewhat chaotic exhibits, covering walls, ceilings, and every inch of the space over multiple levels. It was pretty amazing the amount and quality of items on display, even if there wasn’t much context. Finally, to finish the night, which would last just beyond 3AM, we climbed the five story Museum of Architecture and Design. The museum is situated inside of a former water tower that was a part of the nearby railway complex and a great example of Argentina’s railway architecture, while many of the displays showed how the city has grown and expanded over the years.
In all, it was a great night that we were lucky to experience. With over 150 institutions open and various events to discover, it was fun to see the passion for history and culture by the locals, as they played tourist in their own city along with us.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid
Another architectural gem that we made sure to visit, the El Ateneo Grand Splendid. Buenos Aires is home to more bookstores per capita than any other city, and this has to be one of the most beautiful. The bookstore is located in the old Grand Splendid Theater, which still retains all the decadence of an Italian opera house.
In the back is the main stage, now a cafe encased by thick burgundy curtains where you can look out at the 120,000 plus books on display. Looking up from the center of the space is a large dome with an original Romantic-style fresco celebrating the end of the First World War. We enjoyed browsing the titles as we ascended thourgh each floor, a perfect reuse of a former 1,000 seat theatre.
Parks, Sculptures & Monuments
We enjoyed taking in the many elegant and diverse parks and monuments found around Buenos Aires, but our favorite part was seeing the lavender Jacaranda tree which blooms every November and can be found all across the city. While they are not nearly as well known as Cherry Blossoms, they are just as beautiful and spectacular as they bloom for just over a month each year. Apparantly it’s a love-hate relationship though with the locals, driving some people mad as the leaves permanently stain everything that they fall onto, including doing damage to car paint.
Palermo, where we stayed, is home to a majority of parks so we had quick access to a small Japanese garden, impressive and beautifully laid out rose garden, an attractive recreational lake, and the botanical garden full of cats. Interestingly, the citizens had recently voted to close the nearby city zoo, as they decided it was not a humane place for animals. Walking by we could still spot some of the animals still roaming around as they were still waiting to be rehomed. There was also plenty of open space for people to just relax or play football (soccer).
Recoleta and the Retiro barrios had impressive green spaces full of grand monuments and sculptures, we especially enjoyed listening to local performers playing music while watching people enjoy their Mate tea on the weekends. One particularly impressive sculpture that we saw was the Floralis Generica, a 105 foot wide and 18 ton metal flower that blooms each day with the sunrise. It took about 20 minutes for the six 43 foot petals to close as we watched at sunset. At sunrise the petals ope nback up, mimicking the actions of a real flower.
Lastly, in Parque Lezama located between San Telmo and La Boca, we came across an African heritage festival after visitng the nearby Museum of National History. The park was full of booths each representing a different country in Africa where you could try different native foods. While eating and drinking we watched as dance performances and music lit up the area. We saw some really impressive traditional dresses, and enjoyed being a part of the celebration.
One event that we heard about and decided to check out was the monthly Recoleta Gallery Hop, because who doesn’t love free wine? We met at the start where we were given a map to many different galleries in the area. It was fun watching the dressed up crowds discuss the latest art on display. In some areas they closed down the streets to cars, so we sat and were able to enjoy some of the local entertainment. By the way, there are no open container laws in almost all of Latin America, so it was always acceptable, and often encouraged to roam around with a drink in hand.
La Boca Republic
We arranged a tour with a local to take us through the economically challenged but original hub of the city, known as La Boca. Translated as ‘the mouth’, for the part of the Matanza-Riachuelo River that it sits along. The area is home to the cities oldest port and full of many colorful houses and the popular pedestrian street, the Caminito.
During our tour we got to visit with some of the long time locals who are working to provide jobs and opportunities for many of the people in the area. We discussed local politics and some of the challenges that the area and people face, while eating delicious Alfajores, delicate cookies made from cornstarch, that are sold to raise funds in support of community projects. We also got to meet a few local artists who’s families immigrated to the area in the early 1900s. Seeing the houses that their parents built and that they have worked to repair and expand over the years.
Lastly, we would visit the ‘La Bonbonera’, translated as ‘the bonbon box’, which is the home of the much beloved Boca Juniors football (soccer) team. Like many disadvantaged communities, the local sports team is seen as one of the few opportunities to make it out of the neighborhood, and if nothing else providing a distraction from the struggles of daily life. The team is one of the most successful and popular in not only Argentina but in the world, and works hard to give back and support the community. Game days get so wild that visiting fans aren’t even allowed to come anymore, with the fans being just as big of a spectacle to see as the games themselves.
The Museum of the Malvinas and the Space for Memory
Located on the edge of town in an area not frequented by visitors, this was the most impactful activity during our time in Buenos Aires.
The Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy was originally an educational facility of the Argentine Navy. It was used as an illegal, secret detention center during the so-called National Reorganization Process (Dirty War) of Argentina’s 1976–1983 military dictatorship. The Museum of the Malvinas and the Space for Memory and for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights now occupy the grounds.
The museum is dedicated to the Malvinas/Falkland Island dispute between Argentina and Great Britain. The Falkland Islands, as known by their English name, was the site of a two month war in 1982 between the two countries, with Argentina at the time being under a military dictatorship. Great Britain won, and the islands remained a part of the kingdom, but not before nearly 1,000 died. Most of the fatalities were on the Argentine side, as young barely trained soldiers and sailors were sent to war.
The museums goal is to help those on both sides to understand that the war was launched by an illegitimate military regime, and that even soldiers were victims. At the same time, even if the war was fought as a way to unite the country under a dictatorship, it is clear that Argentine’s still believe the islands should be theirs, if for no other reason then proximity as well as pride. It was a well laid out and beautiful museum, but as neither Argentines or Brits, it was difficult for us to really take a side or form much of an opinion.
On the other hand, the Space for Memory and for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights had a much deeper impact on us. Walking around the grounds of a former secret prison with elaborate torture facilities at one time was a chilling experience. Of the 5,000 people who were detained at the facility, only 150 survived. Today, it is a much different place. Full of non-profits and NGOs using the spaces for their causes. It isn’t really much in the way of a museum, but as a place for artists, youth radio stations, and historians to create a new space in place of one with such a horrid past.
The Evita Museum & Recoleta Cemetary
Two things you can’t miss when traveling to Argentina and Buenos Aires is learning about Evita Peron and visiting the Recoleta Cemetery.
Recoleta is the home to one of the great cemeteries of the world, and it was one of the city’s most memorable sights. The cemetery, which opened to the public in 1822, was a miniature city of domes, pantheons and sculptures located right in the heart of the Recleta neighborhood. Many of Buenos Aire’s most famous people are laid to rest here, including scientists, writers, and presidents. While walking through we noticed most graves are well kept, but others appeared eerily abandoned to time. Of course the cemetery’s most famous resident is Eva Duarte Perón, or Evita. It was surprisingly difficult to find, off to one side of the cemetery, but once we saw the crowd of people we knew we had found it.
At the Evita Museum back in Palermo, we learned about the mythological force that Eva Duarte Peron has over Argentinean society. She only lived to 33, but her time on earth was spent being a champion of the people. We enjoyed seeing the film, books, letters, dresses and photos of her childhood and trips abroad displayed at the museum as it took us through her childhood up through her untimely death and into her lasting legacy.
Back home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Maggie and I always attended what were known as Bike Party’s. Basically a group of cyclists would get together, often with some sort of theme to dress up in or decorate your bikes to, and go for a planned route ride around a different part of the region once a month. During the route, there are several stops, usually at a park or large parking lot, where everyone can take a break and dance or listen to music while drinking. When we heard that they were having one in Buenos Aires, we jumped on the opportunity.
We found a local shop in Palermo that would rent us bikes for a few days, and then headed downtown towards El Centro to meet up with the group at the starting point under the Obelisk of Buenos Aires. The route would take us all throughout the northern half of the city, lasting for over 4 hours, and stopping at Belgrano, General Saavedra Park, and Plaza Echeverria along the way. It was very similar to what we were used to back home and a nice familiarity on the other side of the world, with music blasting from speakers mounted to bicycles, people dressed up in costumes, and children, teens, and adults all participating in the fun.
The ride did have a particular motive, as the stop in Belgrano consisted of a ceremony to remember a fellow bicyclist who had recently been killed in a hit-and-run accident. A bicycle painted in white and adorned with flowers was raised and locked to a city streetlight near the site of the crash, and the family and friends all gave speeches in rememberance. The idea behind the ride was to promote awareness of bicyclist and their rights on the road, and to hopefully encourage the city to make the streets more bicycle friendly.