My last day in Buenos Aires, and the temperature has climbed over the course of the day to what must be in the 90s, prompting me to retreat from my exploration of San Telmo, the city’s oldest district, and cool off in the hotel lobby until it’s time to catch a cab to the airport. The idea that I’m sweltering in shorts now, but in less than 24 hours will be in freezing temperatures bundling on the layers is hard to reconcile.
While my week and a half was dominated by work, either tucked away in the artificial bubble of climate-controlled, matte gray padded cubicles of corporate life or the understated, modernly immaculate hotel, I still did what I could to venture out into the city and what suburbs I could. Wherever I could I picked up bits and pieces the city’s history, of the politics current and past, the geography and climate, naturally hampered by the fact that I have as strong a grasp of the Spanish language as I do of the cranberry futures market. Only on this last day have I been able to see some sort of character to the city as a whole.
As a major city, Buenos Aires comes across as an aging Hollywood actress; in her heyday she was clearly quite beautiful, and still retains many traces of that beauty, but she is not dealing well with her decline. Parts are under drastic reconstruction, glossing over whole areas with pretty but unremarkable new features, nearly indistinguishable from any other modern city. A number of areas are left in the mingled Spanish, Italian, and French style of the city to age gracefully, a number of suburbs gentrified by an injection of foreign money and the local haves, but so many surrounding areas left to neglect still creep in with dirt, garbage, and children gathering cardboard or begging, traces of varicose veins under the carefully maintained skin. Even staying out of rougher parts of the city, you’re not allowed to forget that it bears the weight of poverty, but it doesn’t define Buenos Aires. It still holds on to an elegance and confidence befitting its nickname, the Paris of South America.
Despite past political upheaval, near constant labor demonstrations, and inherent government corruption, Buenos Aires feels fairly safe. This is aided in part by the heavy presence of both police and private security on every other street corner, a clearly lucrative business in this city. In many cases their presence seems honorary, more as a deterrent for serious crime, immediately evident in the complete lack of traffic enforcement. Any given intersection will likely involve three times as many cars as it’s designed for, giving absolutely no regard to street markings or traffic lights, with two or three traffic police casually watching from the curb.
Sadly, the one thing that really takes points off for me from Buenos Aires is the mere cursory nod to nature. The rivers themselves are unusable for recreation other than boating due to heavy upstream runoff and relatively unchecked industrial dumping, and the nearest beaches are a three hour drive away and at the admission of the locals, still not that great. The countryside itself, a startlingly flat landscape for hundreds of miles to the north, west, and south, is kept at bay and claimed en masse by the massive cattle ranches. Driving along the freeways, summer picnicers can be seen lined up on the grassy margins mere feet from the pavement, the few green patches away from the city they can claim for an afternoon.
Luckily, this vast ranching empire has resulted in some of the best pit-grilled beef you’ll found anywhere. Fillet mignon, or Lomo, often occupies half the menu, and naturally, with beef you have to have potatoes. Just don’t look for a lot of vegetable offerings; this is the kind of town that grills and serves an entire block of provolone cheese as an entree. Which is why it’s just as well I’m leaving, eating like that for a week and a half is hazardous to my pants size.