Day 26, 26JAN2017
Biker Street BA. We noticed a small tour of bikers yesterday and Josh inquired with the company via their website if today we could meet for a full-day bike tour.
Our tour guide and host for the day was Barbera, one of the two founders of the small company run out of his father’s former repair shop in Palermo. Josh and I opted to walk to the shop departing our apartment by 0715 and strolling the forty-five minutes through a relatively calm early morning city.
The tour kicked off with an immediate introduction to bike travel in a busy city. According to Barbera we were actually lucky to be traveling with him in January because it is the portenos summer vacation season and most people leave the city for the month and vacation elsewhere. I still found the roads and sidewalks to be heavy with people, so I can’t imagine what the rush must be like in the non-holiday months!
Cruising down tree-lined streets in Palermo we made our way to the first stop on our tour: the Planetario Galileo Galilei observatory. I couldn’t figure out if the observatory actually conducts scientific observations, or if, as Barbera mentioned, the place is used for parties and to show kids what the night sky looks like as part of the obligatory primary school field trip. The building is space age looking enough, and after a few minutes we were off to our next stop.
We rolled into the Rose Garden shortly thereafter, jumped off our bikes and took a ten minute stroll through the garden. The place was indeed pretty, roses of white and pinks lined the central pavilion, but maintainers were busy mowing the lawns and blowing leaves from one segment to another so I can’t claim the place was at all peaceful.
Then we were off to Recoleta and we stopped at the Plaza de las Naciones Unidas y Floralis Generica (Flower Statue) to have mate. Mate is an ingrained tradition in Argentina. Served in a treated gourd or glass cup, the dried tea-like material is then paired with piping hot water. The preparer will pass you the drink and without stirring the straw you drink the cup’s wealth in its entirety before passing it back to the preparer so they can fill the cup with more hot water and pass the cup and straw along. The same batch of leaves can be shared for several cups of tea before needing to be cleaned. Barbera served the tea which smelled of oregano and tasted of smoked chicken with alfajores: sweet shortbread cookies with dulce de leche sandwiched in between.
Unfortunately the flower statue, a towering stainless steel icon, has not worked for two years. Apparently it was a gift from France in the early 2000s and the intention is that it opens and closes in tune with the sunrise and setting. The first ten years upon its arrival in Argentina it did not work. There was a period where the statue did move, but it has once again remained stationary. Next to the park Josh and I noticed a massive building looking much like it belonged in Washington D.C. what with its huge colonnade and staircase entrance. The place sadly looked dilapidated and run down, but according to Barbera the building is actual the prestigious University of Law for Argentina.
We took in the good company and shared several travel and schooling stories for a good forty minutes over mate before it was time to move on.
We drove all along Ave Libertador (our street), through Recoleta and into Retiro where we stopped after a fantastic hill climb at the Plaza de San Martin. At the center of the plaza is the Monumento del Libertador Jose de San Martin – the man accredited for leading the charge to free southern South America from Spanish colonialism. Throughout Buenos Aires and Argentina for that matter there are numerous monuments and plaza’s named after this military might.
Moving on we pedaled quite a distance to the Microcentro neighborhood, past towering French and Spanish influenced business buildings, apartments, and lastly we endured a road block due to a protest by Patagonian farmers. At the heart of Buenos Aires history and politics arguably lies Plaza de Mayo, so named in memory of the month Argentinians fought for independence. The plaza hosts the Presidential Palace, the Piramide de Mayo monument, and one of three remaining buildings from the Colonial era. The brilliant white Cathedral from said era stands out among the graffiti and hodge podge of makeshift shelters that host overnight protestors and various other signs signaling to the President the general dissatisfaction of the public with their government.
Moving on we stopped by the second of three remaining colonial Churches, still in use today in fact, and then rode to the Convento Santo Domingo. This Church was used as a barricade for British troops resisting Argentinian ousting in 1806. This was a tidbit of historical information I’d never known: Buenos Aires and portions of Argentina along the River Plate were under British control in 1806-07. The failed attempts to control the area were part of the Napoleonic Wars, and although British troops controlled the land for a few months, their crusade for Empire was in vain.
After the convent we pedaled over the Rio Darsena Sur, a mostly manmade port region parallel to the actual River Plate. We were now transitioning into the Puerto Madero neighborhood, the newest and flashiest neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Reading guidebooks on Buenos Aires I was led to believe the richest people of Buenos Aires have had a storied history of moving from one neighborhood to the next, beginning in San Telmo, and then settling in Receleto and Retiro, then Palermo. None of these neighborhoods looked excessively flashy. Although their towering facades were beautiful and intricate, in truth their street levels were grimy and graffiti covered. Puerto Madero, the newest epicenter for the wealthy was brilliantly ritzy in contrast. According to Barbera most portenos can’t afford to live here let alone eat here, and the clean wide streets and pristine buildings explained perhaps why.
We stopped at the end of this new neighborhood along the banks of Languna de los Coipos where a failed 1970s dictatorship project attempted to clean up the city’s former public bathing, fishing, drinking, and multi-use bay. At this stop we rested our legs and devoured the glorious Buenos Aires meal of “choripan.” This hefty sandwich is composed of fresh thick rolls topped with a lengthy spicy chorizo sausage sliced in half, and then smothered in an assortment of chilis, salsas, hot peppers, sweet eggplant, pickled cabbage, ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, anything really that you may want. The key accoutrement however is the freshly made chimichurri.
Once fed we rolled along the banks until we reached Ecological Reserve. This portion of the ride was my absolute favorite portion today. The reserve transports one entirely from the busy city and into a garden of nature. Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur was designed to allow for portenos to have a natural escape – full of running and bike paths, the place claims thousands of distinct wildlife (especially birds) and separates the city proper from the actual River Plate. We stopped at a clearing along the River Plate and were absolutely awestruck. I could’ve sworn the river, its muddy fast-moving water, was actually a sea.
In the heat of the day we departed Puerto Madero and made our way from the richest to the poorest neighborhood in Buenos Aires: La Boca. La Boca’s claim to touristy fame is the Caminito district, a historically preserved neighborhood where former dock workers and European migrants huddled together in lean-to homes constructed of just about any materials they could find. The buildings, some four stories high, were composed of a shared kitchen and gallery on the ground level, then four or more rooms on every floor – one family per room. Several homes designed this way would then share a single toilet located in a central place along the street. In these terribly cramped and poor quarters Tango invented!
Drawing especially from German, Italian, Spanish, and former African slave musical styles, Tango originally was a form of music that eventually paired with the dance-music duo we know today. You know you’ve entered into the Caminito district for two reasons. For starters, the Tango music suddenly blasts its way into your eardrums devouring the former street noises of La Boca such as kids playing, stray dogs barking, or cars thrumming along. And secondly because the Caminito district’s brilliant paintings are still preserved. It is important to note that people of La Boca still live in abject poverty and actually still reside in the makeshift barrios from the late 1800s. The difference between La Boca at large and the Caminito is that in Caminito the homes are painted bright pink, red, blue, green, yellow and preserved as a historical monument. People no longer live in the brightly painted shacks of Caminito, however they do still live in the dilapidated and rundown shacks of greater La Boca.
After Caminito we traveled back through La Boca, sticking to the single road our guide knew was acceptable for non-La Boca residents to traverse, and we made our way to the Lezama Park. From this park, our second hill ride for the day, we could take in the only Orthodox Church in the area – its bright blue tones a stark contrast to the grey concrete buildings around it. We then crossed into San Telmo, the former neighborhood of the high class citizens in the 1800s. The rich swiftly deserted their palatial San Telmo villas in the mid 1800s following a Yellow Fever epidemic which mercilessly preyed on the residents of La Boca along the river bank. We toured a former villa of the airport’s namesake Ezeiza family. When the wealthy families ran from San Telmo to establish homes in neighborhoods further from the river, the poor of La Boca moved into the homes. Again, several families would reside together, whole families taking only one room – regardless the step up from a room the size of a closet in La Boca to a room the size of a normal room in San Telmo must have been wonderful.
Before returning to Recoleta we enjoyed a detour at the San Telmo market: a tourist trap of sorts where every antique is sold alongside fresh fruit and vegetables. Our final stop enroute to Recoleta was the Plaza del Congreso. The Argentinian Congress has a storied past of failures just as much as that of the executive branch, and as such the plaza is littered with numerous campers protesting 24 hours. While we were visiting the plaza and gazing at the gorgeous building, we noticed a group of protesters guided by police.
With the late afternoon drawing to a close we pedaled through Recoleta, stopping at the Cemetery to view the third remaining colonial building in Buenos Aires and then returned to the bike shop in Palermo.
Our drive today was well over 35km and lasted just about eight hours. Even though it was only 1800 in the evening we were truly exhausted. Our forty-five minute walk home was one characterized by silence, we both were just so tired!
But today was Australia Day so we had to celebrate! With eyes half lidded we stopped at a “foodtruck” stand in Recoleta and shared in happy hour pints and a platter of cheesy French fries for less than 140 pesos (that’s $8.75)! After our cheers we returned home and promptly fell asleep.