Don't hate me. Surely this somewhat tongue-in-cheek statement is sacrilege, especially among those countless Americans who hold this city to such a lofty romantic ideal. And if a native happens to read this, don't think I'm disparaging your fine city. I feel the same way as you do right now when I read visitor's unfavorable first impressions of New York on Trip Advisor — I got ripped off by a cartoon character in Times Square or NY pizza is greasy and gross (they ate at Sbarro.) It takes time to come to love a place. You can't just blow through it!
B.A. it's beautiful, fascinating city unlike any other in many ways, it just didn't ignite excitement that's overcome me like the electricity of Osaka, the hedonism of Barcelona, or the exhilarating chaos of Mexico City, Istanbul, or Bangkok. Even the first time I visited New York City when I was 15. I knew that I would spend a good portion of my life here. There's just something about these places that my chemistry gravitates towards. You can't spend enough time in a place you love; you just want more, you want to know them, to own them in a way. You start thinking about how you can live there, how to be a legit expat. I think for many visitors, B.A. gets under their skin like that. The decaying fusion of the Old World and New, like Europe from a bygone era is irresistible to some. It has its undeniable charms but perhaps these visitors Spanish is better than mine.
I was here and in the environs for a little less than two weeks. Not a whole lot of time but long enough to drink red wine out of the bottle with strangers in the park, pass the mate gourd around, and eat as much beef as a mountain lion. I tried my hand (or feet and hands rather) at the Milagra, only to exhibit my poorly concealed "gringoness" to new friends, confirming their suspicions.
I stayed at a cheap hostel in San Telmo for the first five nights. I won't call them out because while the hosts were lovely, it was a pretty terrible place. The building was ancient and was once beautiful no doubt but it fallen into almost irreparable dilapidation. There was no power on the entire neighborhood for the first few days so much effort was spent dealing with just trying to figure out how to charge my phone. I rarely travel with a plan which works just fine so long as there's a decent internet connection. Devices go dead and the whole free-wheeling approach pretty much derails.
In these first few days I was also very hungry as I couldn't find anything to eat. Where are the vegetables? Surely someone here must eat vegetables? Apparently the diet is meat, pizza, cake, gelato, wine, and cigarettes. That's all fine and dandy but my constitution gives out fairly quickly when subjected to such regular abuse. I found this city's signature lifestyle a far cry from the cold pressed juices, kale salads, and vegan tacos of my NYC haunts. But it's good to shake things up. I did my best to stick to my usual diet subsisting on the "comida por kilo," places that are eerily similar to NY delis where you can a bite of soggy salad or cucumbers soaking in oil.
The Argentine diet was actually the beginning of the end of my two years of diligent vegetarianism. I was on an estancia outside the city and wandering around the grounds, taking it all in, Las Pampas is a ruggedly beautiful part of the world. I followed my nose and trespassed behind one of the farmhouse to see what was for lunch. There I found the asador so simply and perfectly grilling up huge sides of different beasts. The smoke stung my eyes and the smell of all that simmering animal fat made me ravenous. What, was I going to come all the way to Argentina and not eat BBQ? I'm all about the obtaining the fullness of experience. In hind sight, by eating such a restrictive diet over the past few years I've unintentionally denied myself this full breadth at many of the places I've visited over the past few years. Not anymore.
I spent the next day wallowing in self pity and disappointment in myself. After the meat orgy of the previous evening there was clearly no going back so the only thing to do now was go to La Brigada. There I was eating bife de lomo and papas fritas, washed down with what else but a fine bottle of Mendoza's own malbec. That's the other glorious thing about Argentina — you can get a bottle of wine that would cost $20-30 here for less than $5. So in other words, it's hard to spend most of your here not drunk and that's perfectly acceptable because you're usually in good company.
Oddly enough, barring "vacation type" countries, your Mexico's, Thailand's, etc — this is one of the few faraway places where I've found tons of Americans. Students, expats, wine aficionados, romantics. There's an odd yankee appeal here that I haven't quite put my finger on just yet. If I were to return, I'd be more inclined to just head to the wine country in Mendoza and then time permitting, Patagonia. I had a great time in B.A. but next time would be a quest for places of spectacular natural beauty of which Argentina has many. Even the skies in the city on a good day are shockingly bright, blue, and beautiful.
Something noteworthy for me at least is you don't see such raw poverty in B.A. as you do in other parts of the developing world. There are slums but nothing like cities of comparable size in Brazil for example. It's just a completely different socioeconomic situation. Here, oddly enough they're concentrated around heavily industrial railroad hubs. The most notorious is one called Villa 31, an illegal city-within-a -city wedged between two commuter rail stations. As a photographer, I'm always looking for places like this, places where the human condition has nowhere to hide. I always enter respectfully, working with a local guide, paying everyone I encounter for their time, and working as quietly as possible. After a week of trying to find someone to take me into this Villa Miseria, I gave up. I was told it was just too dangerous which I'm not entirely sure I believe but the one time I took a short cut through an outlying street in this neighborhood, someone threw a rock at me, so maybe there is some truth after all.
I suppose in some ways the lack of omnipresent, visible poverty in the city is a testament to good local government. Outside of these few areas, for a city this size, it's quite safe and clean.
After writing this I think I actually like Buenos Aires more than I thought I did. Don't listen to me. Just go and soak it up. Two weeks is enough to get a good taste, more is better if you have the time. However this is a place where the stronger your Spanish skills, the more enjoyable your experience will be. English is just not widely spoken and if you can't string together a few sentences of basic Spanish, you will struggle as I did and do in every Spanish speaking country I go to.