Walk into a shop with your bag placed behind your back and you will be immediately warned to move it to the front because thieves will target you. Welcome to the “Paris of South America”.
Buenos Aires is the most visited city in South America, which after spending three weeks of a prolonged stay is rather surprising.
The Argentine capital beats Rio de Janeiro into second place, despite the Brazilian metropolis boasting probably the most awe-inspiring setting of any city in the world. Even in spite of that, if you had the choice between performing a tango at a milonga or samba at Carneval, I think most tourists would be wise enough to choose the latter.
BA is marketed as the “Paris of South America”, which is a credit to the marketing team, because they’ve managed to hoodwink tourists and get away with this claim for years. In reality, it is nothing like Paris. (A slight argument exists that the upmarket district Recoleta boasts some similarities to Parisian plush areas, but it really is slight).
The City of Lights has pristine boulevards, majestic palaces and endearing parks. The home of Tango boasts nothing like the depth of beauty seen in France’s capital or in any of Europe’s most beautiful cities like Vienna, Prague, Edinburgh or Venice.
It is more apt to call it Barcelona’s big awkward brother. Take the Catalan capital, feed it to a few quarter-pounders to bulk it up (not hard to find here, McDonald’s are ubiquitous), tear its clothes to give it a shabby look, give him a t-shirt which says “Ojo”, a bottle of Quilmes in one hand, a couple of precious US dollars in the other and have him tango his way up an avenida and you get a fair idea of what makes BA tick.
Like the home of Argentine hero Lionel Messi, Buenos Aires boasts astonishingly beautiful buildings, like Casa Rosada and Congresso, but are mixed in with block after block of drab, concrete meshes, and along with crowded streets, serve to suffocate the city’s elegance. Admittedly, that’s not hard to do in the 17th biggest city in the world.
Few streets in the capital are without holes on the pathways, tipped over rubbish is a regular sight on street corners, pipe leaks regularly spray water down on you, old men catcall any woman with a decent (or not so decent) pair of legs on the street and the city is almost completely without water fountains, despite heat of 30-40 degrees in summer.
The biggest issue though is safety. Pick-pocketing appears endemic in the city and hangs over every local’s action. As a tourist, you are expected to be on guard at all times.
During a week-long Spanish learning course I did, two of five fellow students had been victims during that week, both on the subway. One had her bag cut open with a knife and her camera taken, while the other felt a hand come into his pocket, which luckily contained nothing, so the thief went away empty-handed.
To walk around the city with a camera clearly visible is to be a walking target and is quite stressful, especially for someone like myself who likes taking pictures with a brand new SLR.
Due to import restrictions, reflex cameras and Iphones are extremely expensive and rare in Argentina, hence a pretty penny could be made by thieves who manage to acquire them from unsuspecting tourists.
This probably explains why the tourist hotspots – even despite being the most popular tourist city destination in South America – rarely seem inundated with tourists, like Paris’ Eiffel Tower or around Westminister in London are. No tourist is too eager to appear like a tourist in the Argentine capital.
To be in Buenos Aires is to be aware. So much so that a catchphrase and action has been formed out of it – Ojo! – meaning “Watch out!”
In the city of “Ojo!”, the more “chic” (a euphemism for “tourist trap”) areas – La Boca and San Telmo – come with a danger warning. Step off the main tourist trails and onto the wrong streets in La Boca – most football fans will recognise the name as it is the home of Boca Juniors – is to increase your chances exponentially of being robbed at gunpoint. San Telmo is seen as best avoided at night, although it’s popular location for tourist accommodation.
The fact Buenos Aires remains a top tourist destination despite the serious issues of pick-pocketing – which would be enough to ruin any holiday – is probably a wider reflection of how unsafe large cities in South America are in general, rather than how much of an allure BA holds despite its safety issues.
This article is largely critical of Buenos Aires, but that’s not the intention. It is a thoroughly interesting city, with a wealth of things to do which, for sure, no tourist could ever do all of.
It’s clíched, but tango is extremely cool and very, very sexy.
Buenos Aires is also a melting pot of diverse cultures, whether they be descendents from Spanish or Italian immigrants 100 years ago or more recent arrivals from Paraguay and Bolivia. It makes for a fascinating cultural mix.
Also, the position Buenos Aires finds itself in its history makes it a fascinating city to experience and be a part of. It really feels like you are a part of a frontline experience of a city and country still living through its traumas – something which isn’t felt in Western Europe where most traumas appear left behind in 1945 and with the advent of *whisper it* the European Union.
This gives the feeling European cities are living museums – something I mean both positively and negatively – while to be a part of Buenos Aires feels like being a part of a city still living through its history. The continuing uncertainty of the value of the Argentinian peso against the dollar emphasises this.
Just ten years ago, outside Casa Rosada, protesters were killed as they demonstrated against the disappearance of what little savings they may have had, through no mistakes of their own. One year later, over 55% of the population of Argentina were defined as impoverished.
Therefore, to expect the Buenos Aires of 2013 not to have problems is ridiculous and unrealistic. Hence why you’d just wish the tourist authorities would cut the bullshit and tell it like it is.