After months of cycling through sparsely populated areas, our muscles were firm but our city survival skills were sadly out of tune. We had never planned on coming to Buenos Aires, but the travel muse always surprises us with unexpected gifts. Armed with a map order, Nancy and I embarked across a sea of pampa for the Atlantic, leaving Aconcagua and the Andes behind.
An hour and a half later, our plane broke the clouds, giving us our first view of Buenos Aires, a white carpet of buildings and concrete, sprawling 200 kilometers from the muddy arms of the Rio Plata.
Seeing greater Buenos Aires and its population of 11 million inhabitants, it's difficult to imagine that this metropolis hasn't always been Argentina's most prominent city. Yet less than 200 years ago Buenos Aires was a sleepy colony of 20,000. Denied a role in the export of golden riches, the settlement floundered, while the colonial centers of the northwest — Salta, La Rioja, and Tucuman — flourished.
It was Buenos Aires, however, that first broke the shackles of Spanish rule and led the fight for Argentine independence. Since then, the city has remained the center of the country's affairs.
Argentina is a country comprised of immigrants. The rolling hills and pampa of Patagonia were settled by the Welsh; Bariloche and environs by Bavarian stock; and here in Buenos Aires, the Italians have made their mark.
During the days we wander with necks craned, devouring the fluid Renaissance architecture, a mixture of 18th-century France and Italy. In the old Italian La Boca, we wind down tight streets, past wonderfully colorful houses. It was the barrooms and flophouses of La Boca that gave birth to the tango, Buenos Aires's gift to the world. Here on Caminito Street, patrons commemorate that great art. The accordion wheezes and a sorrowful voice laments, and dancers work their magic for a passing of the hat.
The real artistry of the tango, however, is played out a few blocks away, in San Telmo, where tourists gather for late-night shows and the great dance is relived in all its glory.
The golden age of the tango has passed, but Buenos Aires is again fighting to be at the world's forefront. Arguably the financial center of South America, Buenos Aires is a haven of commercialism. Deprived of advertising and the gluttony of consumerism, Nancy and I were transfixed by Calle Florida, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. With three shopping arcades and over 600 stores in its short 12 blocks, Florida is the shopping hub of Buenos Aires. This is the place to see the latest technology and fashions, apparently fur coats and short skirts and cell phones. This is also the place to find magazines and newspapers from around the world. We even saw Outside's current issue, albeit for 15 bucks.
Thus, after five days in Buenos Aires we were sated. We had soaked up enough product pumping to last the year. We'd caught the latest films fresh from Cannes, we'd seen Evita's grave and the posh cafes of La Recoleta, where Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe have their home. We'd mastered the subway and bus systems, and darted among traffic, jostling the crowds with the best of them. Our city skills were honed.
But we hadn't seen the sun set our the stars shine in a week. Our tent and sleeping bags were suffering from neglect, and the countryside was calling.