We have only just left the hotel, on our first day in Buenos Aires, and already I can tell things are a little different here. A couple of lovers, waiting at a bus stop, pass time by kissing as if their lives depend on it. In the next block, a man shouts into a public phone, crying unashamedly. There are almost three million porteños (a person who is from or lives in a port city) co-existing here, and they are certainly doing it with passion.
Don’t cry for me Argentina
The walls still proclaim the people’s passion, with fresh, bright red writing marking the name of Evita everywhere. Eva Perón, first lady of Argentina until she died in 1952 at the age of only 33, is still referred to by peronistas as Santa Evita. Her funeral lasted a fortnight, attended by over a million mourners, and that same dedication is clear when we visit her private home, now turned museum, in the green lushness of the Palermo neighbourhood. Her shoes are neatly lined up under glass, her dresses lovingly displayed, and her life story detailed in reverential terms.
With the air of pilgrims, we make our way to Recolleta cemetery; the final resting place of Evita and thousands of other well-to-do deceased. In fact, since many mausoleums here out-value your average porteño house, this is officially the most expensive place to reside in the city. The idea may seem morbid, but the atmosphere is upbeat as sightseers move between magnificent crypts and tombs, snapping photos of this fascinating city within a city.
Buenos Aires is a maze of parks, Parisian-style architecture, and diverse neighbourhoods, and I have joined a Trafalgar guided holiday to make some kind of sense of it. It means a toe-dip into the bright colours and grotesque statues of La Boca, then a dizzying weave through the Sunday markets in San Telmo. Lunch is at Café Tortoni, the oldest in the city, then we visit a “hidden treasure”, South America’s biggest bookshop which just happens to inhabit a spectacular old theatre, complete with heavy red stage curtain and beautifully frescoed ceiling.
Home the range
We also sample a little Argentinian gaucho (the original South American cowboy) colour, escaping the traffic for the Pampas countryside to mix with the dangerously charming gauchos of Estancia Santa Susana. Still sporting their traditional belts of woven wool and hide with metal and coins, the horsemen serve steaks, dance the samba, perform elaborate horsemanship tricks, and try and steal kisses from visitors in equal measure. It’s time to cool off, get safely beyond the Andes and chill out in Chile.
Playing it cool in Chile
Some say Santiago is like San Francisco, but upside down; there’s a mountain range either side, and the ocean is not far away. It’s also rated as South America’s most prosperous city, and it’s clear its six million inhabitants know how to live. Whole districts look like they’ve stepped out of avant-garde design magazines, while restaurants, like the so-hot-right-now La Mer, boast full houses every night.
With the snow-capped walls of the Andes watching over us, we walk the squeaky clean cobblestones of the Paris-Londre neighbourhood and take in the fabulous modern art lining the subway station under the university. Then it’s into the darkness of the Central Markets, where stacks of giant barnacles and huge octopuses are heaped alongside seafood restaurants, packed with locals from as early as 6am – seafood is a well-known local hangover cure.
Earthquakes constantly remodel Santiago and surrounds, so historical buildings are becoming few and far between. We are not immune when we head out towards the wineries of the famous Maipu Valley; a siren is heard in a nearby town just as we are settling down to lunch in an outdoor pavilion, and we stand out in the open until given the all-clear. It is exciting and scary to us, but obviously as everyday as getting up and getting dressed if you’re a Chilean.
We head to the ocean – the very place where the Nazca plate is so troublesomely tucking under the continental plate – and marvel at the nonchalance with which thousands of bright houses are clinging to cliffs in the amazing town of Valparaiso. Sailors fill the streets, boats line the shoreline, and ancient funiculars rattle up and down steep inclines as if the land were as stable as the economy. It is as chilled as Buenos Aires was passionate, although resist the urge to go for a dip here; Antarctica just down the current means the water is a constant 12-14 degrees Celsius all year round, and that may be just a little too chilled for most.
5 tips to get by in Buenos Aires:
• Don’t even think about going for dinner before 10pm – this includes the kids. It’s downright embarrassing leaving to go to bed just as the children and nanas are walking in.
• The Italian influence from past immigrants is enormous. Don’t leave town without trying the local take on pizza – it’s fantastic.
• Fried cheese is a completely valid meal.
• Take common Spanish words such as “pollo” or “Mayo” and pronounce them with a soft “zh” sound, to become “por-zho” or “Mah-zho”. Don’t expect any kind of sensible explanation, either. It’s just porteño.
• When waiting at a bus-stop, pass the time by kissing passionately. This is a common way to wait.