More than steak and Tango: Buenos Aires in the winter for first-time travelers

11 mins read

Buenos Aires was never on my travel radar until my wife told me she received an invitation to attend a conference in Argentina.

When I checked the airline flights to estimate the price of the ticket, I still could not determine if I’d make it. As an entrepreneur, money can ebb-and-flow like deep valleys and rapid white water rivers, so the biggest hurdle was if I could afford it. 

The price of flying from JFK airport to Buenos Aires estimates between US $800 and $1100. That was steep. However, the average I’d spend on food and lodging balanced the trip. When I looked at costs for hotels and Airbnb accommodations, they were very affordable. I was shocked at how cheap they were, really. Soon, I learned that it was off season in Buenos Aires because it was their late fall going into winter.

After I booked my ticket, excitedly, I pulled out the spring jacket that I use in New Jersey because the weather here can be schizophrenic. With the exception that I wouldn’t get the warm tropical sun I prefer while on vacation, Buenos Aires was doable if we stuck to a plan and I mean a tight plan.

In all, we spent a little more than we expected, but our biggest lesson was to stick with the locals to get the best experience and to reduce the obvious gringo tax. But here is a spoiler alert: If you’re Black you will get the American tax too. It’s part of the global reality of capital and market.

Living luxe in Recoleta

Our first few days were in the Recoleta Grand, a luxury hotel in the Recoleta district. Plush and perfectly located in a well-to-do neighborhood, we were blocks from the Recoleta Cemetery, a spectacular burial with splendid tombs and mausoleums. However, my other half only goes to the resting grounds of her ancestors, so those plans were never on the menu. Instead of disturbing the bones of other people’s families, she preferred to explore the vast outdoor market right by the graveyard, Feria of Recoleta.

La Recoleta Cemetery in the Recoleta district of Buenos Aires

One of the popular weekend markets in Buenos Aires, Feria of Recoleta boasts vendors hawking artisanal goods and food. Scattered about are live performances to give you a score as you explore. Disappointed that we had limited time to dig into the array of craftsperson’s goods and art, we were happy to discover later that it was our first taste of a few outdoor mercados sprinkled throughout the city. In all, the scene was a great reprieve because in New York City, street markets continue to dwindle.

While walking or taking a taxi, most of our attention focused on the meticulously carved streets and massive statues dotting the area. The architecture shows just how deep European influences carved themselves into the sculpture of the cityscape. As well as, the heavy masonic culture embedded into damn near every street and edifice. By the way, if you are an urban planner or architect or even a geography aficionado, Buenos Aires is your dream site.

| Read: Richmond’s newly installed night market showcases the vibrancy of a bustling city|

Airbnb comes through . . . finally

After Grand Recoleta, we booked an Airbnb in San Telmo, the oldest district in Buenos Aires and the country’s financial center. About a 20 minute drive from Palermo and Recoleta, the most popular and trendier districts with newer buildings and more renovations, San Telmo has character and edge that reminded me of Brooklyn in 1995 when I went to those crazy warehouse parties. With that comparison, San Telmo has a lot of history and grit with its identity still in tact.

San Telmo was one of the districts featured in AirBnB Magazine’s Buenos Aires edition, so we checked out of Grand Recoleta on lazy Sunday late morning then caught a taxi to our AirBnb. While in transit, I asked the driver, “Hey, where are the Black people?” He was a second-generation Pakistani-Argentine. “In Venezuela, there are no Black here.” 

I chuckled. Venezuela was two countries and thousands of miles north. Plus, the day before, I shared some yerba mate tea with an Afro-Argentine at a barbershop I fell into while wandering down the streets waiting for my wife to finish up with the conference.

Driving up to our next digs, I could not remember anything that my wife said that was dope about San Telmo. But when we were dropped off on Defensa Street, the location of our flat, we realized we’d hit the jackpot. It was at the tail end, or beginning, of a 13-block cobblestone thoroughfare of vendors, called the San Telmo Fair .

It was about half past noon, so we hopped out of the cab and met our host at the flat. He showed us how to light the stove, where the towels were, and how to get Netflix and turn on the good heating system for the slightly drafty, but quaint apartment.

Our Airbnb was on the top floor of a restored 20th century, seven-floor flat. A residential area with babies crying, men celebrating with music on the roof and chicken boiling on someone’s stove. One thing we noticed, people here were not rude to us because we spoke small bits of Spanish. Actually, they were quite inviting. So, we were home. 

This building spoke a relatively-recent opulence. Once upon a time, it housed the city’s affluent with its marble floors and walls in the lobby which matched the stairway and foyers of the other floors. The pull-door elevator and rococo iron gate sent me back to my brother’s apartment in East Orange, New Jersey where rich, white folks lived with a doorman. In 2019, San Telmo, just like East Orange, is a ghost of itself, but the polished alabaster floors reminded visitors it still held to its luster and in some ways, elegance.

Finishing up with the host, we hurriedly set our things down and off we went. Five hours later, feet stinging, but satisfied, we walked something like four or five miles. During the market, we attempted to inch our way through every nook and shop. Or, at least my wife did. Slowly, we traversed, as we bartered and bought small things on our trip.

|Read: Stories and food at the margins have a place at Tender Table |

San Telmo Sunday market

Full disclosure. I am not a shopper, unless at the Marshall’s clearing rack. Also, I am not the type to buy souvenirs. Not even for my mother. The only time I brought home a trinket was from my honeymoon in Egypt. For mommy, I returned with a Quartz pyramid.  However, my diehard love for travel is my vice, my treat, my guilty pleasure, and as my wife puts it, my self care. 

Nonetheless, while in Buenos Aires, I could not resist two things—a leather satchel and belt. 

If you’re like me, and many men, we’ll wear our favorite shoes or clothes, and definitely boxers, until they disintegrate off of us. That is my thing with belts. Mine was on its last shred of faux leather. Dignity had left it a year ago.

If you want good leather, sorry PETA people. Like I said, you want some good, sturdy leather. Like that type of shit cowboys use, and not the soft lamb’s skin that you find in Florence, Italy. Go to Argentina.

For under $60 dollars, I copped an overnight leather bag and two belts. Plus, I met the people who made them. An older gentleman, whose hands told the story of many hours and years of sewing thick fabric, created the bag. It was $36. The belts, which ended up to be $12 each, were cut and stitched by a woman who colored and sewed designer accessories. I was in nirvana.

My wife got a bag for about $27, and some turbans that were stuffed with fabric for the cold weather. She wanted to get these copper pans, and regrets not getting them. She saw the exact same ones in Europe and they were four times the price.

Copper cooking pots, both vintage and new are a great find. Copper is a good metal to cook with because it evenly cooks food, plus it is a mineral we need to regulate our bodies.
Craftsperson works on steel beer mugs at San Telmo outdoor market in Buenos Aires
San Telmo market spans 13 long blocks
Tango dancers in San Telmo.
Hand crafted belts in San Telmo market

Much of the market were leather and clothes designers, wood workers, cobblers, jewelry and bag makers and artists. The more you went deeper into the market, the better prices you. I even came across a woman who put together sage bundles mixed with herbs. Thinking of the late Nipsey Hussle, I was tempted to buy one, but didn’t know how that would work out in customs. So I absorbed the thick, woodsy, flower scents coming from her tent.

Throughout San Telmo’s outdoor market, jazz musicians and dancers performing Tango kept the energy vibrant. I must pause and be clear that Tango is everywhere in Argentina. The foot stomping with flutes and violins is the musical score of the country. 

One night, we went to a show where dancers presented the evolution of Tango. Very briefly they had a “slave couple” dance for two seconds then poof. Of course, I bumped into a Congolese visitor who broke down the word Tango is from her country, as well as Lindo and quilombo, words frequented in Tango. I guess the origin is with the Black people in Venezuela. But, I will give you the mainstream version. Tango is dance and song mostly imported from Europe. Yeah. Okay.

After passing dozens of tents hawking yerba mate cups and straws, or various pieces of art. I was fully exposed to great artist feats, and tired. We went back to the flat with the plans that we’d find a local market and cook. Google Maps told us that we were close to San Telmo indoor market, which was a warehouse with different vendors. Accidentally, we went right when we should’ve went left.

United we stand

After walking for an hour with growling bellies, we ended up at an Italian restaurant. The food was decent. Much better was the Malbec wine which had great notes of fruit and flowers. With a menu about 12 pages long, we remained safe and ordered salad and spaghetti. For dessert, we went traditional by ordering a tiramisu. 

Walking back, we went into a local market and got some water for the evening. The next day, walking to the Latino American Art Museum, we ran into the San Telmo indoor market. Its entry way is a simple door with an almost unnoticeable sign. Inside, for us, was a needed financial oasis. Argentine restaurants and taxis began to eat into our cache of travel notes. We had to start really cooking.

Three coffee shops. Two grocers and a couple of bakeries.  We bought our food there for the rest of our weeklong stay.

On Monday, we caught a cab to Plaza de Mayo to witness a weekly ritual of “Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo.” A procession of mothers whose children disappeared during what locals call, The Dirty War and subsequent repressive military dictatorships, from 1976 to the early 200s. During this time period, over 30,000, mostly young Argentines vanished. With their signature white handkerchiefs and often blue dresses, the women walk and sell merchandise to keep their movement going.

As we caught the tail-end of the walk, we came upon another protest—gender-based violence and LGBTQ rights. The streets came alive in the evening with drums, singing and marching. For a moment we joined and traded information with our poor English, but were welcomed.

Plaza de Mayo mothers mourn and protest the 30,000 youth who disappeared in dictatorship regimes in Argentina.
Protest at Plaza de Mayo for justice.

Like day-and-night, we traipsed five blocks over to the financial district, landing in a long strip of stores. It was as if the marching didn’t exist. A combination of tourists and locals jumped in-and-out of stores from jewelry to luggage to chocolate to clothes. A good sign was the librerías, the book stores that hold relevance in Argentina, a culture that celebrates and supports print culture. Wandering in, we were asked to leave because we had coffee. I respected that and kindly exited.

Wanting a little snack and evening beer, my wife and I passed our Airbnb and walked up Defensa Street to a local bar. It was about 10 p.m. Wondering why whole families were going into nearby restaurants, we learned that the average time to eat in Argentina was between 9 and 10 o’clock. Often, I thought how that worked for digestion while there, but I joined in the ritual, as to not disrupt the culture. By the way, the beer is great here, and the cocktails were innovative and refreshing.

Bar in Buenos Aires

Bars and boating day trips

There isn’t much a typical local restaurant can offer me because I am a pescatarian. Argentina is a steak, and all steak culture, so I don’t have a good feel on the eating. Although, the city is located off of a major river, seafood is not even remotely a part of its local dish selection unless it borrows from the menu of Peru or Brazil.

It was recommended that we try out Hierbabueno, a vegan friendly place. The menu was extensive and the smoothies were excellent. It was just it had a bite to the pockets. A $90 meal shook us, but the splurge was worth it. At midnight, we had to call it a late evening and fall into bed. We had a boat trip to catch the next day.

By far, the highlight was our boat ride around the Tigre Delta, the lower part of the Paraná river. A three-hour trip, where the boat slowly toured the waterway, guests were served hot chocolate, coffee and cookies. Remember to bring a jacket, it can get very chilly.

We read that other tours served bar-be-cue, but that would’ve been a waste of meat. So we settled to sit in the back of decent-sized boat, watching homes in a picturesque scene because the leaves had turned a golden-red in the late fall. 

Occasionally, we’d see homeowners tending to their boat or tying up a dinghy, but I was shocked to see so many “for sale” signs. I asked the tour guide how much homes cost along this prime real estate. He said roughly between US $20 thousand and $70 thousand. Not bad for a piece of paradise.

House along Tigre River

Following the boat ride, we needed a hot bowl of food. We settled on an Asian fusion eatery, Gran Dabbang Café, in Palermo. A nice change from our simple meals at the Airbnb, and very good food. I had curry vegetables and my wife ordered a whole fried fish. 

We bounced to a couple of museums the following days, but had more fun at our Airbnb excursions where we attended a yerba mate tasting and a folklorico dance. Going to a museum is not the problem, but the ones we went to were not interesting to me. We also scheduled a night walking tour, but it was too cold. My Airbnb experience is not always good times. I’ve had some issues, but the excursions were a trip saver. 

The last night, we had big plans to go out with a bang. We did. We cuddled in the bed and binge-watched in sadness, “When They See Us”.Going to the airport and getting on the plane went much smoother than our arrival. Without much excitement, we made our way back to the states with my stash of yerba mate. I never thought that Argentina would be a place I’d visit. Now I plan to check out Patagonia and the Pampas.

Arkitect Duane Reed focuses on the market and currency, but lately is getting his hands into more travel and news.

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