I wanted to get more of a feel of Buenos Aires, hear what a local had to say about their city, so I went along to a Buenos Aires Free Tour – a small, independent-run walking tour.
When I first joined the group for the Aristocratic Tour, as the guide Vicky made the introduction, I remembered that I don’t normally get on very well with tours – my mind tends to wander off, particularly if lots of dates and figures are reeled off or the guide lets show that they have given the same spiel day-in day-out for years. But quite quickly I saw this was going to be different, thanks to both the gripping content of the tour and Vicky’s entertaining delivery.
Exploring the smart, wealthy neighbourhood of Recoleta, this tour was about showing old monuments and elegant mansions that I wouldn’t have blinked an eye at walking the streets by myself, yet Vicky injected colour and life into them with her stories. Revealing quirky secrets and funny facts, she painted a picture not just of the city’s streets, but something even more tangible – its people, those infamous porteños – and their lives.
What I found most refreshing and unexpected was how honest Vicky was about the shortcomings and quirks of being a porteño – such as the funny mix of how they come from Italians, speak Spanish, have French buildings and want to be British (the only Harrods to open outside of London is in BA and there are red postboxes everywhere). She also explained how everyone must pay for health insurance, and to compete for business, companies offer more and more – even free cosmetic surgery and counselling as part of their policies. Everyone Vicky knows goes to a therapist, and she had an appointment with hers just that morning, there’s no stigma attached to it.
When we approached the Malvinas war memorial, as the only Brit in the group, I began to shuffle to the back. I needn’t have worried – Vicky remained surprisingly neutral and objective in her regaling of the facts about the Falklands War of 1982. She even revealed stories about how their government at that time sent boys of 18- and 19-years-old without food nor tents to the freezing islands, leaving survivors to since tell how they fought three enemies in that war: the British, the cold, and their own leaders. Vicky said everyone is still very angry about it.
I won’t reveal everything she told us, in case you want to go along, but Vicky ended the tour by the famous Recoleta Cemetery, resting place of many a politician, writer, and the city’s icon, Eva Peron. However, it was some years and some miles of travel before Evita’s body finally came to rest here – I’ll let Vicky reveal the full, jaw-dropping story to you.
I had enjoyed the style of the tour so much, a few days later I joined the morning City Tour, which takes in the more famous iconic buildings and monuments of the city centre. This time it was led by Gaston, who I didn’t warm to as much as Vicky, maybe because he had a more history-and-politics-heavy tour, maybe because it was an extraordinarily hot day and we were all suffering, or maybe because one of the first subjects he talked about was the homeless and how he simply couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to live like that… Um, maybe because they don’t choose to, Gaston (Buenos Aires has a particularly bad problem with homelessness that the government simply doesn’t know how to address).
There was still light relief on Gaston’s tour, and he added to the picture Vicky had painted of porteños, by explaining with humility how they like to believe they have the biggest, the oldest, the tallest, the very best of everything in their city, compared to the rest of the world, despite the fact in most cases it’s not necessarily true.
He also demonstrated to us the very Italian hand gestures they use to emphasise certain phrases in conversation. When we stopped outside the famous Café Tortoni, he taught us how to order coffee in a Buenos Aires café by just using different signals with one hand, such as a scissors motion for a coffee cut with milk. A standard coffee here is an espresso, and don’t even think about ordering a regular coffee – the porteños call this dirty water.
Gaston then led us on to the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada – the pink-painted government house – the scene of many a protest in the country’s history, and where still, every Thursday, the mothers of those who ‘disappeared’ during the Military Dictatorship (1976-83) march, demanding information about their children’s whereabouts. Alarmingly, Gaston revealed, since they started marching, two mothers themselves have joined the ‘disappeared’. Also set up in the plaza is a camp of veteran soldiers who were conscripted to the Falklands War, but because it was over so quickly they never got to fight, and the government has denied them the same rights and honours of those who did see action.
Gaston’s tour ended at the Obelisco – the proud symbol of Buenos Aires and a centre point for football celebrations and political protests to gather. This 67-metre tall obelisk stands in the middle of 14 lanes of traffic that make up the Avenida 9 de Julio – which is, Gaston assured us, the widest avenue in the world.
How to do a BA Free Tour
- Each of the tours were supposed to last around two hours, yet they both ran on at least 50 minutes more than this, with Vicky and Gaston each offering even more time for you to chat and quiz them after the tour finished.
- As with anything in life, it of course isn’t really free – you are left with little choice but to tip the guide at the end – but both tours were so enjoyable, even I on a ridiculously tight budget didn’t feel cheated. These chicos are very, very clever – there were at least 15-20 people in each group on the days I went – some people will tip little, some will be more generous, either way, they’ll be happy customers. And even if Gaston and Vicky only work three days a week, they’ll make a good cash-in-hand wage in crisis-riddled Argentina. Other cities of the world should take note of BA Free Tours.
- Visit the BA Free Tours website to see where and when to join the tours.
- See my top 5 tips for seeing Buenos Aires on a budget.