Buenos Aires – Paris in the Americas

The most popular cruise itinerary in South America is that from Buenos Aires, Argentina around the bottom of the continent, through the fjord country and ending in Valparaiso (Santiago), Chile. Whether you begin or end your cruise in Buenos Aires, I strongly urge you to consider spending as many days as you can in this incredible and exciting city, home of Tango and possibly the best beef in the world.

Buenos Aires is the capital and largest city of Argentina and one of the truly great world class cities both in size and its level of culture and sophistication. This is without question the premier city of South America, despite being second in size to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Buenos Aires with all of its suburbs has a metropolitan population of over 15 million, making it as large as Los Angeles, but fortunately it is more compact in physical size. Why is it often called “The Paris of the Americas?” This is a fair question. Of all the cities in the Western Hemisphere, including Montréal, the world’s second largest French speaking city, none has both the French style of architecture and joie de vivre found in Buenos Aires. When you walk through the vibrant and sometimes frenetic central city, or dine at one of the many cafes in fashionable Recoleta, it is hard to remember that you are in Latin America. There is such a strong overall European, but more distinctly French flavor to the city.

Along Avenida 9 de Julio in central Buenos Aires
Along Avenida 9 de Julio in central Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, which means “Good Air” in Spanish, is located on the wide estuary of the Paraná River, known as the Rio de la Plata. English speakers often mispronounce the name by calling it the River Plate. This broad salt-water estuary separates the coast of Argentina from that of Uruguay, and at Buenos Aires it is about 80 kilometers to 120 kilometers or 50 miles to 75 miles wide.

The city is actually at the eastern end of The Pampas and is therefore situated on flat ground, primarily grassland, but dotted with trees and shrubs, especially around watercourses. Climatically it is a humid sub-tropical climate, similar in nature to that of the American city of Charleston, South Carolina. Summers are warm and humid, occasionally experiencing temperatures in the upper 30’s Celsius. Winters are cool, with storms sweeping across The Pampas bringing blustery conditions and plenty of rain.

The central city is laid out with a basic grid pattern that follows an axis of the broad park lined boulevards Avenida 9 de Julio and Avenida de Mayo. There are angled streets that radiate out from the central city into the surrounding suburbs. Essentially the city grew adjacent to the waterfront, as from its earliest inception Buenos Aires has been a port city. The port plays so much of a role in the city’s history, that Buenos Aires residents are known as Porteños, meaning people of the port.

In stark contrast to the rest of the Western Hemisphere, Buenos Aires reflects an architectural flavor that speaks to that of Paris. Not only does the city possess elegantly manicured parks, grand boulevards and public monuments, but the inner city is liberally laced with 19th century apartment blocks that are patterned after those found in the French capital. And sidewalk cafes and small bistros abound. Most public buildings have a decidedly French overtone.

Avenida Corientes is one of the main boulevards of central Buenos Aires
Avenida Corientes is one of the main boulevards of central Buenos Aires

From the 1930’s on, Buenos Aires saw the construction of hundreds of high-rise apartment and condominium towers, most with the distinct art deco style, which was common to both New York and Chicago at that time. Since the 1980’s, as the city has continued to grow, the architectural pattern for high-rise has been that of the contemporary glass and steel type construction. Thus there are three layers of dense high-rise buildings that comprise much of the central city. Essentially Buenos Aires has more high-rise buildings than New York City, a density and distribution that makes it one of the most densely settled cities in the world. This also gives Buenos Aires a most dramatic skyline. The city is upon first glance almost overwhelming, due to its tight clustering of high-density buildings.

There is an overall vitality that one can feel when walking through the streets of Buenos Aires; similar to that one feels in Paris or Madrid. The sidewalks are broad and thronged with well-dressed people. Sidewalk cafes abound, and everywhere there are parks or plazas filled with benches that enable people to enjoy the out of doors while being in the heart of a major urban center.

The grand Plaza de Mayo and the massive green belt that is the Avenida 9 de Julio, lend an atmosphere of elegance to the central downtown area. The Avenida 9 de Julio is actually the world’s widest boulevard. It is so broad that a pedestrian needs two to three changes of stoplights to be able to cross the entire street. The various lanes of traffic are separated by broad green strips that are planted with trees and impeccably manicured grass. It intersects with the Avenida Mayo, which ends at the Plaza de Mayo fronting on the Casa Rosada, or presidential palace. This is essentially the very heart of the city and everything of importance is found within a kilometer or two off of these two primary streets.

Evita Peron once spoke to crowds of thousands from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, Argentina's Presidential Palace
Evita Peron once spoke to thousands from the  Casa Rosada, Argentina’s Presidential Palace

Unlike North American cities, Buenos Aires does not have a concentrated downtown. The city center is a mix of residential and shopping districts that are integrated with parks, plazas and government buildings, and the area spreads over many square kilometers. These include:

  • The Calle Florida is a pedestrian-oriented shopping street, and if any single street could be called the heart of the city’s commercial activities, this would be it. The Calle Florida is a narrow street, and it is lined with a myriad of small shops and major stores, providing one of the most concentrated retail districts of any world city. One can buy almost anything on this street. Calle Florida is also home to many small restaurants or bistros. And quite often you will see a couple dancing Tango in the middle of the street, their boom box radiating the pulsating music outward to capture an audience.
It is commonplace to see Tango performed in shopping malls and on the sidewalks
It is commonplace to see Tango performed in shopping malls and on the sidewalks
  • San Telmo, located just south of the Avenida 9 de Julio, is one of the most historic districts of the city, its beautiful architecture a reflection of the growth of the city during the mid 19th century. Here you do find very traditional Spanish architecture, but mixed with later 19th century French influences. San Telmo is packed with Tango clubs, restaurants and it is also noted for its large weekend flea market.
  • The southern waterfront district of central Buenos Aires is known as La Boca, meaning “The Mouth.” This is essentially the poor part of the city, yet despite being a less than desirable neighborhood, it is a popular venue for visitors. It is here amid colorful buildings constructed of wood, stucco, brick and sheet iron, that the tango is king. There are many small nightclubs devoted to Tango, the dance that is synonymous with Argentina. And visitors can come to La Boca in relative safety. La Boca evokes a spirit and charm that is unique to Buenos Aires. The houses are painted in multiple colors, often in gaudy shades that seem to be at odds with one another. And many walls are covered in murals, or what one would call organized graffiti. Behind La Boca there are many square kilometers of poor class housing, but essentially these neighborhoods do not overwhelm Buenos Aires, nor are they as lacking in facilities and services as would be seen in other major cities of Latin America. This in itself shows that the overall standard of living in Argentina is well above that of other Latin American countries with the exception of Chile and Uruguay.
Colorful La Boca is the working class neighborhood where Tango was born
Colorful La Boca is the working class neighborhood where Tango was born
  • The wealthiest inner city neighborhoods are Retiro and Recoleta, which centers on an old cemetery in which the elite of Buenos Aires have been buried for the past two centuries. The cemetery and accompanying park are surrounded by some of the most fashionable high-rise and private homes in a densely populated district that is akin to the areas that border Central Park in New York City. And both Retiro and Recoleta are home to the finest shopping centers and boutiques where one can buy Argentine leather goods, fine European inspired clothing and jewelry. And outdoor cafes abound.
The fashionable district of Recoleta, one of the most sought after in Buenos Aires
The fashionable district of Recoleta, one of the most sought after in Buenos Aires
The Duarte Family crypt containing the tomb of Eva Peron in Recoleta Cemetery
The Duarte Family crypt containing the tomb of Eva Peron in Recoleta Cemetery

Traffic in Buenos Aires is quite heavy, and it is often said that if one can survive driving in central Buenos Aires traffic, one can drive anywhere. But that same saying applies to Rome, Paris and many other major world capital cities.

Most first time visitors to Buenos Aires, especially American tourists, are amazed at the fast pace, the crowded streets and sidewalks and the liveliness of the city. They are also somewhat mesmerized by the diversity of its architecture, both old and new crowded together in a “cheek by jowl” fashion. For those who love architecture, the older buildings of Buenos Aires offer plenty of so called eye candy.

Travel within Buenos Aires is facilitated by both a Metro, or subway system called “The Subte,” and interurban railroad network. There is almost no locale within the metropolitan area that cannot be reached by either metro or commuter train. The city operates a fleet of modern busses that travel down almost every principal street in the city. There are also thousands of yellow and black taxicabs that are constantly in motion, as this is a city where people always seem to be on the move. The city does have the start of an expressway network, with several expanding outward from the central city to connect the suburban districts.

In addition to being a dynamic residential and commercial center, remember that Buenos Aires is also the country’s capital and center of finance, major seaport, railroad hub and a center of diverse manufacturing. As its political hub, it has seen its share of massive political and labor demonstrations in the past. Argentinos are very vocal and somewhat volatile when it comes to politics. Over its history, the country has swung from dictatorship to democracy many times. Its most famous, or some say infamous leader was Juan Peron. And is beautiful wife Eva, better known as Evita, mesmerized the country from the late 1940’s to the early 1950’s. Her tomb in Recoleta Cemetery is essentially a national shrine.

It is this diversity that gives Buenos Aires is importance and has enabled the city to grow to where its population makes it the most significant single locale in the entire nation. And its spirited lifestyle has earned it that title of “The Paris of the Americas.”

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Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch www.doctorlew.com

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