Buenos Aires: Evita, the Beatles, Opera and More

Buenos Aires has so many great museums and other sights that while we saw a lot, we barely scratched the surface (a good reason to return someday).  Here are some of our favorite paid attractions.

1.  Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA)  An excellent modern art museum with many different types of exhibits, the MALBA is a beautiful space and organized well.  A definite must-see.

2.  Evita Museum  We had lunch in the museum cafe (amazing warm bread!) and then toured the museum.  The museum looks rather small and we expected to tour it fairly quickly, but it was very interesting with artifacts of various stages of Eva Perón’s short life, she was only 33 when she died, so we spent more time there than anticipated.  My favorite artifacts were her clothes and shoes (I was surprised by  her large shoe size!), but it was interesting to learn about her causes such as women’s rights and children’s welfare.

Evita

Evita (museum cafe)

3.  Japanese Gardens  We actually went to the gardens with the primary purpose of having lunch at the restaurant on the grounds, but the restaurant was closed for the holidays.  The gardens were lovely, but incredibly crowded.  Matt thought this added to the authenticity of the experience as when we visited various gardens in Japan they were usually too crowded to enjoy the tranquility they were intended to inspire!

4.  Teatro Colon  One of my favorite sights in Buenos Aires, I would love to see an opera here some day (while Matt liked the theater, he was happy it was not opera season).  As our tour guide explained, the cost of Teatro Colon cannot be estimated as a building with these specific materials – the particular marble, windows, fixtures- can not be built today. The beauty of the theater is incredible and the English speaking Argentine guide was funny, entertaining and knowledgable as he kept our group moving at the prescribed pace. A few interesting tidbits: the Argentine opera audience is not shy and will hiss at singers who it doesn’t think meet the grade; there are separate entrances depending on ticket price and the materials and styles of the entrances reflect said prices;  and the lower, grated areas under the side boxes were the widows’ boxes where widows who wanted to see the opera but also were in mourning would have to sit to see the opera but not be seen.

5.  Fuerza Bruta  Our entertainment wasn’t all high brow - Fuerza Bruta is a stripped down Cirque de Soleil. The audience stands throughout the show and is constantly moved to accommodate the staging. A mixture of song, dance, performance art, swimming, acrobatics and more, it was an exhilarating hour and a half for the bargain price of $14 a ticket. We didn’t even mind being jostled and having water sprayed on us, it was so fun! See Matt’s blog for some videos of the spectacle.  http://mattgeiger.blogspot.com/2014/02/fuerza-bruta.html

6.  Zoo  While the Buenos Aires Zoo is a bit shabby, it was quite charming with its old buildings and pleasant grounds.  We loved that these guys were freely wandering about and learned that the jackelope is really a Patagonian Mara (relative of the guinea pig, but apparently not eaten in Argentina).

This is a great zoo for kids as patrons are encouraged to buy the special pellets in order to feed most of the animals.  So like the old days at Milwaukee County Zoo, you can see elephants and bears shamelessly begging for food. The enclosures also allow the patrons to get fairly close so you can get a good look at the animals.  Yes, zoos have their negatives and it is always a hard to see the animals captive (well, except for the huge, Amazonian snakes.  I was happy they were captive and still almost threw up looking at them), but if you can put that moral issue aside, it is a nice place to spend a few hours.

7. Xul Solar Museum We really know nothing about Argentine art but Matt read about this museum and thought it sounded neat.  I thought it was cool that the artist changed his name from Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari to Xul Solar (note that Xul is Lux backwards, so his name means Solar Light).  In addition to being an artist and sculptor, Xul was a cosmic dude, interested in astrology and reincarnation.  He invented two languages, tarot decks, a mystic game of chess (apparently the board was larger and the rules could change as the game was played) and created a new piano with 3 rows and colored keys.  The museum is small, but interesting.  Because the museum was set up by Xul’s widow and followed Xul’s design, Matt questioned just how famous Xul was if he established his own museum.  But then we saw his works at other museums and some pieces are traveling around the US as part of a joint exhibit of Xul and Jorge Luis Borges’ (writer) works.

8.  Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art  (MAMBA) This museum doesn’t really deserve to be on the list as we didn’t care for it much; the collection was limited and not well organized.  To be fair, two of the exhibit floors were under construction so it may be more impressive when those are accessible.  And while it normally charges a fee, we happen to go on a free day so it wasn’t all bad. 

9.  Fortabat Museum  We were a bit disappointed when we began our visit as you are first directed to the family gallery and with the exception of the Andy Warhol painting of Mrs. Fortabat, we weren’t too interested.  (Aside: if you own your own gallery, you can put your niece’s substandard work in it too!).  But once we got to the lower level, the quality improved immensely and the artwork was amazing.  My favorites included a fantastic painting of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, a View from the Empire State Building and a Tower of Babel.  The top level has functional art: bikes, chairs, coat racks etc., which while not of great interest to me, added to the uniqueness of the collection.

10.  The Beatles Museum While the Fab 4 never made it to Buenos Aires to the best of my knowledge, the Cavern Club complex pays tribute to them in style. Created by a Argentine whose Beatles memorabilia  earned him a Guinness World Record for having the largest Beatles collection, the small museum is packed with items ranging from albums to figurines to bubble gum to condoms (John and Yoko label, not the Beatles).  The collector doesn’t appear to play favorites and the solo work by each of the Beatles also gets a nod.

11.  Proa  This museum located in a really cool building in Caminito does not have a permanent collection.  We were fortunate enough to see a fascinating Ron Mueck exhibit that was life-like sculptures of people apart from the scale (they were either big or little, but never exactly right).  The exhibit also had a film that showed him and his staff creating the work.

Proa

Proa

Wow, when I see all that we did on vacation, it is no wonder we were happy to get home to Cajamarca!

Fun Freebies in Buenos Aires

I have been procrastinating posting more about Buenos Aires because we did so much that I am having a hard time organizing all of it into coherent posts. So enjoy today’s post on the fun freebies and stay tuned for posts on the paid attractions, Tango and Salsa and a surprise bonus (yes, I know what it will be).

In no particular order, here are the worthwhile free attractions we enjoyed in Buenos Aires.

Recoleta Cemetery  - No verdant spaces here, this place is a concrete and marble mini-town chock full of mausoleums, statutes and dead people. Some mausoleums are beautifully maintained while others have fallen into creepy, decrepitness. While free, people at the entry will stop you, draw you a map to the main attractions and then hit you up for a “donation” to some cause. Eva Perón is buried here (we learned that it was after much wrangling and moving of her corpse, including overseas, that she was finally interred in her family’s crypt) as are many other Argentine notables. While other famous tombs are marked, Evita’s is not, so the 20 cents I spent on the map was worth it. Had we not toured the cemetery on a day with a heat index of 116 F, we likely could have stayed longer, but we were afraid we would join the corpses.

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The tomb below is often visited. The young woman died in an earthquake in Innsbruck in 1970 and her parents commissioned a statue of her in her wedding dress to stand outside her tomb. The poem under the statue was written by her father and beseeches God as to why his daughter died. The bronze dog was added after the dog’s death. No mention of the husband, so I’m not sure whether he perished in the earthquake as well.

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Liliana Crociati de Szaszak

Botanical Garden in Palermo  A horticulturist’s dream, this shady retreat is home to over 5,500 plants and trees and a nice place to enjoy a peaceful walk or rest on a park bench. Not that we rested; it’s not our nature to actually sit in one spot while on vacation. I kept saying I was going to go back there some day with a book, but it never happened.

Rose Garden  If you have to pick between the Rose Garden and the Botanical Garden, go for the flowers. The gardens were absolutely beautiful, laid out alongside a lagoon. We must have been there at the right time of year as the flowers were in bloom. There are fountains, statutes, and a pergola covered walkway, which make the whole park lovely. There isn’t a lot of shade, so we saved it for a day that was merely in the high 80s.

Eduardo Sívori Plastic Art Museum  We had no idea why this museum has “Plastic” in its name, so we didn’t have any expectations when we entered. We still don’t know why, as the museum is dedicated to showcasing Argentine art. Wow. The galleries were filled with light and laid out really well and the contemporary art exhibits by Sergio Moscona, César Fioravanti, and Marcelo Mayorga were each distinctive and all very good.

Casa Rosada  This Argentine equivalent to the White House is both the executive office and mansion of the Argentine president (although she lives elsewhere).  We went on the tour, which was a bit dry and didn’t provide a lot of opportunities to take good photos.  One notable aspect of the tour was when the guide, upon showing us the famous balcony where the Peróns spoke to the masses, reminded the group that Madonna (in the movie Evita), and not Eva Perón, sang Don’t Cry for Me Argentina from the balcony. We were also shocked to enter President Cristina Fernández’s office and see her family pictures, desk etc.  Of course, on that date the President hadn’t made an appearance for over a month, so her office hadn’t been used recently!  The Hall of Argentine Bicentennial Women was impressive and filled with portraits of famous Argentine women.  President Fernandez gives her televised speeches from this room, so we later saw it on the news reports when she finally showed up to rule her country.

On the day she was set to make her first appearance after her absence, we happened to walk by the Casa Rosada about two hours before the speech. There were loads of cameramen and many organized groups of people (unions and other issue groups). We waited for about an hour and then decided to go home.  As we watched the news that night, we realized that at some point the gates were opened and all those people and groups were allowed to enter the Casa Rosada’s atrium. After the press conference, Cristina address the crowd in the atrium for about 45 minutes. It would have been cool if we had waited, even if most of what she said would have been lost on us.

Puerto Madero  A gentrified former port, Puerto Madero is filled with shops, restaurants, hotels, a few museums, green spaces, bridges, and ships and is a fun place to hang out for an afternoon. Quiz for my Milwaukee followers: name the architect of the “Woman Bridge” pictured below.  Puerto Madero contains an ecological preserve and there is a long walkway that runs along side the preserve (site of our Salsa day, stay tuned). It also is site of the free Humor Museum, which is in a lovely building that retains its former German brewhouse atmosphere.  The displays were somewhat lost on us due to language and cultural differences in humor.

San Telmo  San Telmo is known for its antique market and shops but I managed to buy a nice pair of sandals there instead. On Sundays, the main drag, Calle Defensa, is closed to traffic and becomes a bustling flea market that extends for blocks on end. Flea market doesn’t entirely do it justice as in additional to all of the wares there are musicians, street foods, tango dancers and throngs of people enjoying the scene. Matt bought his first prized mate cup here and we found the popernipperings here too. Plaza Dorrego is nice and if you miss the flea market, there are plenty of vendors hawking their wares there every day of the week.

National Museum of Fine Arts  While it does not rank as my favorite museum in Buenos Aires, a visit to this free museum is worth it. It has a large collection of international art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, including several rooms devoted to Argentine painters. It’s been about a month, but I remember a room devoted to the Impressionists, Rodin’s Kiss and a creepy bust, a collection of bombillas (silver mate straws), and gorgeous display of hair combs that were so ornate and large I am not sure how one would hold her head up. The museum is raising funds for air conditioning (only one room has it thus far), so as we went on the same day as the Recoleta Cemetery, we were not able to linger long due to the extreme heat. Near the Museum is the ginormous Floralis Generica, which opens at dawn and closes at dusk.

Plazas, Monuments and More Plazas There are countless plazas to enjoy in Buenos Aires: Plaza de Mayo outside the Casa Rosada is a big demonstration site with camps and signs everywhere, Plaza de la República has the iconic obelisk, Plaza San Martin is a huge park, Plaza Italia was near our apartment so we passed it daily, Plaza del Congreso has Rodin’s the Thinker, among other sculptures … The list goes on.  Everywhere you look there is a Plaza and a Monument to enjoy.

Hipódromo Argentino de Palermo  I know I already devoted part of a post to the horse track and casino, but it was so fun we went twice so it is worth mentioning again.  It truly can be a free event if you don’t wager and in addition to enjoying the races, the people watching is great too.

Home stretch!

Home stretch!

Next up: the paid attractions.

Bread, Glorious Bread

Argentine beef has nothing on Argentine bread.*  I am a carb queen and bread tops my list.  That said, about 2 years ago Matt and I started following a low carb diet and bread was banned from our house except when we had company or on a rare special occasion.  Avoiding bread in Peru isn’t too difficult as restaurants do not serve bread (instead serving cancha, carbs, I  know, but irresistible).  And then we got to Argentina.  Bread Bliss.  Flaky rolls, yeasty slices, crispy crackers, warm loafs, crunchy grissini, crackling wheats – we had them all.  These were some of the outstanding ones.

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Every restaurant had different breads, and while the nicer restaurants generally had the best kinds, sometimes the small joints pleasantly surprised us.  The typical accompaniment was a diluted cream cheese concoction, with chives (most common), herbs or, once, beets.  Butter and olive oil were rare and sadly tasteless.  The olive oil in particular was a surprising disappointment as we expected good olive oil to come with good wine.  No such luck.  My favorite accompaniment was the eggplant spread, which we had at two different places.

Bread and Eggplant

Bread and Eggplant

Now we are back in Peru and off the bread.  Sigh.

*  I actually mean that.  Despite Argentina’s reputation for amazing beef, we were generally underwhelmed.  We had some decent beef, but none so tender you could cut it with a butter knife.  And sometimes you couldn’t cut it with a steak knife.  We did have a darn good burger at Burger Joint – the best we have found in South America, including the ones we cook at home!

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Caminito: the Tourist Trap that Grew on Me

Known for its brightly painted houses, street artists and tango dancers, Caminito is one of Buenos Aires’ touristic “must sees.”  Caminito is located in the Boca neighborhood, which is also home to the Boca Juniors, one of Buenos Aires’ premier soccer teams.  Boca is an impoverished, run down area that wouldn’t see any tourists apart from Caminito and the Boca Juniors.  In fact, tourists are warned to stay within the Caminito area, which includes the Boca Juniors’ stadium, the Bombonera, and to skedaddle before dusk.

Matt and I headed to Caminito one Wednesday and proudly navigated the bus system to get there.  While that may not seem like a big deal, understanding public transportation in a foreign culture and language is always an adventure. Subways are pretty straightforward and once you have been on one the rest are fairly easy to understand.  Buses are different.  When you don’t know how much to pay or how to pay (cash, tickets, passes), it is difficult to try to understand with limited language skills, while a line of people queue up behind you.  For this reason, most tourists stick with cabs, but we were armed with a transportation pass that we were determined to use on more than just the subway.  We learned from our Peruvian friend Jocelyn, who lives in Buenos Aires, that when you get on the bus you tell the driver your final destination and he determines your fare, which you then pay by holding your transportation pass up to the scanner or paying cash. So we set out for Caminito on the bus and managed to get off at the right stop (okay, that part was pretty easy as it was the last stop before the bus turned around), but still, we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves for our bus-taking sense of adventure.

And then our hearts sank: what kind of tourist hell were we in?  Despite my popener quest, I typically am not a shopper.  I shop when I have something I need to buy, not as its own form of entertainment.  And Caminito, as far as the eye could see, was a several block area of street vendors and knick-knack shops, interspersed with tourist restaurants, generally featuring a tango show, guacho show or some other show.  UGH.  It reminded me of the lowest point on our Alaskan cruise, Skagway, Alaska, that was little more than a fake Wild West town geared for tourists. Matt and I assured each other that we didn’t have to stay long and started walking around.  Despite the pushy vendors and tacky souvenirs, the bright colors and art work created a lively ambiance and we began to enjoy the experience for what it was: tacky and hokey, but fun and with some neat street art. We even fully embraced the tacky shopping experience via the popener quest. (If you missed that post, you can find it here:  http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/01/21/the-quest-for-a-popener/)

We intended to visit two museums in Caminito, but the Museum of Decorative Arts of Benito Quinquela Martín (the creator of Caminito) was closed in January, a common occurrence in Buenos Aires, where residents leave for the month to escape the heat.  We went to Fundación Proa and were not disappointed in the Ron Mueck exhibit.  We had never heard of Mueck, a contemporary Australian artist, but his work was unique and great to see.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Mueck

We also sucked it up and ate at an outside cafe where we saw tango dancers and then two guys play guitars.  The tango dancers were okay, but the guitarists were really great and we enjoyed the show.  And my inexpensive steak sandwich with chimichurri sauce was one of my best steaks in the city thus far.  All in all, an enjoyable experience although one I do not feel the need to repeat, unless we decide to visit the Museum of Decorative Arts as it is now February and open again.