First the basics: We are in our early 60s, recently retired, now living in the mountains in Arkansas. We are originally from Chicago/Milwaukee, so we need an occasional city fix. Our goal was to live like ex-pats for a month in Buenos Aires. The first two weeks, we would be joined by another couple, very good friends from Philadelphia. But the last time we’d all traveled together was in 1974, riding the peoples’ buses around Guatemala and Mexico for three weeks, and sleeping on dirt floors. (There was no TripAdvisor to help us.)
For the past year, the four of us have been planning and anticipating this Buenos Aires trip – exchanging phone calls, excited emails and TripAdvisor tips. We had agreed – as we had in 1972 – to try to live within a daily budget. For our trip to Buenos Aires, we wanted to keep our expenses (not including lodging) under $100 a day per couple, which turned out to be pretty easy (we averaged $75 per day).
We couldn’t all depart at the same time (our friends are still working) so my husband and I arrived a few days earlier than they did to scout things out, and we also stayed another two weeks after they left, to savor our slow travel experience. Here’s our story.
Day 1 – Departure
We left Northwest Arkansas (XNA) for Dallas, where we caught our American Airlines connecting flight to BsAs. Easy connection, uneventful and a fairly comfortable flight. We had learned the hard way never to check luggage. So – even for a month – we each had only one regulation-sized carry-on roller bag, and a personal item. Actually, I had two personal items and my husband had none. So while I kept the small Eddie Bauer pack on my back, he grudgingly (but sweetly) agreed to carry my yoga sling bag in its pretty pink silk case. (I think this makes him look very attractive.)
Day 2- Arrival in BsAs, Exploring the Recoleta
We arrived early a.m. at EZE. It is “easy” – if exceptionally slow -- to make it through the winding lines for customs, exchange money at El Banco National and find the counter for the Ezeiza taxi we’d arranged in advance. But things were complicated a bit more because my husband kept forgetting that he had his pretty yoga case. Airport personnel would call him back or announce, “Sir… your pink bag? Please come back here?” And after getting a good look at my burly husband, the female workers (and many of our fellow passengers) giggled. “You are a good husband,” one of them said in excellent English.
The taxi driver (from Ezeiza) spoke only a few words of English, but enjoyed teaching us some basic Spanish as we drove. He warned us about cab driver scams (the ones we’d read about on TA), drivers who will take a $100 bill and return a counterfeit one, claiming to have no change. It was nice to know that we had agreed upon a fare with Ezeiza before we left. So far, no hassles.
We had arranged to meet Nico, from Buenos Aires Habitat, at the apartment we’d rented in the Recoleta area, on Uruguay near Juncal. There we were to give him one month’s rent and a deposit in U.S. currency. It sounded a little scary – arriving with a truckload of US $100 bills (hand selected at our bank, so there were no wrinkled or old ones). But when we met smiling Nico, everything seemed fine. “Try not to break anything big,” he joked with us, as he showed us around the bright, cheerful rooms. “If you break anything, it should be small… and they won’t care so much.” We made a note to only break the small things, as he showed us through the airy sunlit loft, decorated with contemporary furniture and sophisticated artwork. The one-bedroom unit was equipped perfectly for our needs, and had a washing machine, small balcony and a clothes-drying rack – essential to our one-small-suitcase-per-person travel philosophy. Our total monthly rent was $1800.
After Nico left, we took a nap before heading out to explore our Recoleta and Barrio Norte neighborhood. We were charmed by our neighborhood, which is a little bit Champs Elysees, a little bit Michigan Avenue, a touch of Milan, a pinch of Nicaragua. The streets remind us of the 7th arrondissement in Paris – little bakeries, candy shops, butchers, fruit stands on tree-lined streets with bistros and outdoor restaurants tucked into almost every block. People were walking everywhere. There were many families, and many older people. Everyone was relaxed, happy, having a good time. Nobody – except one or two obvious tourists – was fearfully clutching purses. But I didn’t need to worry anyway. I had left my purse at home, zipped a few pesos into the pocket of my pants. So I was also carefree and happy, arms swinging.
Official dinner time in BsAs wouldn’t start until 9:30, but after we’d walked for about four hours, we were starving. About 8 p.m., we ducked into a little pizza parlor to get a cheese pizza and a Quilmes beer – which, to our delight, came in a large (liter) bottle to share. The pizza was delicious. But then, at this point, we would have eaten our socks.
On the way home, we stopped at the busy Carrefour grocery store to buy essential provisions for the apartment—yoghurt, granola with chocolate, cheeses, orange juice, crackers, bananas, herbal tea (for me), coffee (for him) and our first bottle of Malbec.
Day 3 – Discovering Palermo Soho (Viejo)
We woke about 8, and I rolled dout my yoga mat to do a few painful sun salutations on the nice hardwood floor of the apartment. As I huffed through the poses, I was enjoying the sun coming from the big wall of windows in the apartment until I realized there was a man in the facing apartment, in his underwear, was watching me. I pulled the white shades down to block him out. But still, after more than 20 hours on the plane and miles of walking, all of my muscles were protesting.
In the meantime, my husband headed to Vincente Lopez Park, to read the Buenos Aires Herald (a local paper written in English), and then to the bakery. He came back at 10 a.m., with pain au chocolat, which we enjoyed at the little dining table before leaving the apartment with maps, camera, guidebooks and sunblock.
We walked down Avenida de Santa Fe to Palermo Soho. Soho, as promised in TripAdvisor reports, is vibrant, youthful and exciting. It is filled with shops selling work by local artists as well as funky beads, creative t-shirts, trendy clothes. We ate at an outdoor café across from Plaza Palermo Vieja where my husband ordered stuffed eggplant (with olives, cheeses, green and red pepper, a wonderful cold salad) and I ordered chicken-stuffed ravioli. We lingered for two hours, then wandered through the Soho streets.
For dinner, we walked to Rodriguez Pena and found Cumana restaurant, at 114 Rodriquez Pena in the Recoleta. This place –recommended in the Time Out guidebook -- provides cheap eats and lots of ambiance. Since we had no reservation, we waited in the long line outside the place for our name to be called, enjoying the warm Buenos Aires evening. Inside, the restaurant was filled with charming wooden tables, groups of young adults in animated discussions and romantic couples staring into each other’s eyes. The menu has a wide selection of dishes that appear to be mashed potatoes mixed with other things. We ordered a liter of beer to share and an empanada appetizer, then locro and shepherd’s pie – far too much food to finish. The dinner bill was about $24 US dollars (93 pesos).
After dinner, we take a walk in the Recoleta, which is transformed into a different – and magical—place. With comfortable shoes (Ecco sandals) and no purse, evening walks are fun and I have the freedom to cover many miles. (Note: we felt completely safe walking through the streets of the Recoleta until very late in the evening. Crowds of portenos -- families, friends, groups of teenaged girls, couples – were doing the same thing.)
Day 4 –Lunch at Sanjanino, Dinner at Fervor
We walked up and down all of the tree-lined Recoleta streets, down Alvear past the wonderful hotel and Rodeo-drive-like shopping, then into all of the parks. We stopped for lunch at Sanjuanino on Posadas, which claimed to be the penultimate place for empanadas. The place was crowded and the mood was light, thanks to the jovial owner who goes from table-to-table teasing people and telling them what they need to order. The empanadas were indeed wonderful, we ordered both meat and vegetarian.
We decided to splurge for dinner and go to Fervor, an old-style, elegant, two-story restaurant behind the Alvear hotel on Posadas. We came in without a reservation, and enjoyed a complementary glass of champagne in the lovely lobby until a table was available. Beautiful chandeliers hung from the ceilings – including a large one made out of sterling silver cutlery -- and crowds of friends and multigenerational families order meals to share – steaks, seafood, salads, vegetables. Sharing seems intrinsic to the culture. I ordered a wonderful fish of the day and my husband ordered a steak. The waiter recommended an inexpensive but intriguing Malbec.
Day 5 – Our friends arrive from Philadelphia
We were still in bed when we got a phone call at our apartment – our friends had arrived at EZE and would be here soon. We asked if they needed time to rest and shower but no – they were too excited. We walked over to their apartment on Pacheco de Mele and greeted them. By the time we’d traded travel stories, it was time for lunch. We headed out to La Querencia, a neighborhood restaurant on the corner of Juncal and Junin with regional menu selections – including an interesting stew of beef, peaches, raisins, sweet potatoes, vegetables and a locro of beans, pumpkin and meats. We sat back, talked and laughed, relaxing into this vacation – and this beautiful city.
After lunch, we strolled around the Recoleta, discovering even more tree-lined streets and little shops, stopping for a glass of wine around 5 p.m. at La Rambla, an outdoor café on Posadas near the Alverar Palace hotel.
We headed back to our separate apartments to rest and clean up. And then we all met around 10:30 p.m. at Melo, a neighborhood restaurant with wonderful food and warm, friendly service. (This will be another favorite for the rest of our trip. ) Dinner is normally at 9:30 on weeknights, but at 10:30 or 11 on Friday and Saturday.
Day 6 – San Telmo
On Sunday, the four of us took a taxi to the craft fairs in San Telmo. We worked our way through the crowded, colorful streets, stopping to watch puppet shows and other street performances—including a great tango demonstration.
The most interesting wares seemed to be on side streets, where groups of artists are gathered. My friend and I bought colorful metal necklaces made by a local artist. We couldn’t find the restaurant we’d chosen, the 1888 Parilla recommended so highly in TA, even though we stopped at other restaurants, and asked shop owners. No, there is no such place in all of San Telmo, they all said. (The reason, we learned later, is that it really isn’t in this part of San Telmo --- it is actually closer to La Boca.) We gave up and found an outdoor restaurant – the place where all the umbrellas are lined up. One of those places that have “tourist trap” written all over it. The food was ok, but the opportunity to sit out in the sun in San Telmo – priceless.
For dinner, to keep our budget on target, we led our friends back to Rodriguez Pena, to the La Cholita restaurant next to Cumana. These are two of three of these low-budget restaurants (the third is Mexican), all in a row, that seem to appeal to college students, backpackers and people in their 20s. They are open to the street in front, charming in ambience – if a bit rocky on service. La Cholita is a parilla, but the steaks were a bit disappointing. I had ordered fish, and was not disappointed – the fish was just fine. Still, the laughter and fun in the place made us all feel like we were 23 again. And a great dessert made up for the exta-chewy steak.