A survival guide to Buenos Aires’ La Boca

When I was in Buenos Aires, I kept putting off going to the area with all the multicoloured houses that is such an icon of the city. People kept telling me scare stories about the dangerous neighbourhood it’s in, but one day I plucked up the courage to go…check out my experience of La Boca on Stanfords’ blog.

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca

A grand adventure: Iguazu to Cusco. Part 1 – Which way?

It all started in Iguazu – the town from where you visit the eponymous falls. The falls were spectacular, a real highlight in my life (see my Iguazu Falls story). However, back at the hotel that night, it was time for practicalities. The problem with Iguazu is it’s miles away from anywhere. We had taken a bus from Buenos Aires that took no less than 20 hours to reach here, and it was looking like journey times of 24 hours upwards to get out the other side.

Rapidly running out of money, we had decided in overpriced Buenos Aires to return to Peru, and planning the best route was proving tricky. Iguazu is way up on the tip of a promontory of Argentina that juts between Paraguay and Brazil,  and on the map, it looks very sensible indeed to go straight up through either of these countries to reach Peru, rather than do a dog’s leg through Argentina before heading northwards. However, a trawl through online forums brought comments such as, “if you want to take the most arduous, painful, endurance-testing journey of your life” – on bus travel in Paraguay, while the Brazil route would involve traversing the Pantanal – a vast wetland covering 21,000 sq km (apparently “the size of Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland and Holland combined”). So, there was no other way round it – the best way meant getting to the north-west of Argentina, traversing  Bolivia and out through Lake Titicaca to Peru.

Now the added issue was, as those of you who know me know, I love travel, but unlike my good friend the Overland Traveller, I do not always enjoy the travelling part. I have what’s bordering on a phobia of buses and am prone to horrendous motion sickness, so imagine how I felt at the thought of days and nights of long bus journeys ahead – however more comfortable than Paraguay it would be.

So this is my tale of what happened…

Day 1
We needed to get to Salta, in north-west Argentina, from where buses headed north to the border with Bolivia. However, our first obstacle was that no bus companies run direct from Iguazu to Salta, but eventually we worked out that they would sell a combined ticket where you take a bus with one company as far as the transport hubs of Posadas or Corrientes and then change onto your 20-hourer up to Salta. The kind assistant at Iguazu’s ticket office must’ve felt our increasing stress levels as she even slipped us into cama class for the stretch to Posadas, and cama ejecutivo to Salta, all for semi-cama prices – score!

So at 10am we boarded our bus at Iguazu that hurtled at an alarming rate along a muddy road through to Posadas. By 2.30pm we’d arrived at Posadas, and with just a couple of hours until the next bus, we set up camp in the terminal’s old-school cafe. At 4pm it was time to board our night-bus for Salta. Three movies, a chicken dinner and a fairly decent sleep later and we reached…

Inside the Flecha bus from Posadas to Salta

Inside the cama Flecha bus from Posadas to Salta (18 hours)

Day 2
…Salta at around 10.30am. We decided to keep our journey ball rolling and get tickets for that night to La Quiaca – Argentina’s border town with Bolivia. We had already spent five days in Salta three months ago, so didn’t need to spend another night here. We knew the centre was an easy stroll away, and knew where to get our lunch (Vea supermarket, Florida) and dinner (Doña Salta, Cordoba 46); we even slipped in a cable-car ride up the mountain and a trek back down. Then an almighty thunderstorm rolled in – we were soaked within seconds and still had to get to the bus terminal. Cue some soggy socks and t-shirts hanging on the rail in the bus (lucky we had the front seats). And so on with our next overnighter, departing with spectacular views through the front window of the electric storm in the mountains all around Salta.

The calm before the storm in Salta

The calm before the storm in Salta

Day 3
5.30am: Arrival in La Quiaca (we think).
I woke at some hour of darkness with my mouth stuck to the armrest and to the unmistakable sound of Bolivian women’s high-pitched, screamy voices, and deduced it was time to get off the bus. We blurrily gathered our belongings and stumbled out the door into what immediately felt like Bolivia – the air was freezing cold, the ground was dusty and there were lots of well-wrapped Bolivians sitting with big piles of boxes and bags.

I immediately had that thrilling pang of adventure kick in again – Argentina and Uruguay had been very nice in places, but I felt a little too much like I was in a wannabe 1980s-Europe most of the time, so getting back to the nitty-gritty of South America was an exciting prospect. One of the things I love best about travel is sometimes not knowing where on earth you are, and this was one of those moments. For a time, you have no fear, nor even concern as to what happens next, you’re simply living the present. And usually, everything does work out alright; we walked straight to a taxi, which dropped us within minutes to the border crossing – easy.

Now we just had to wait two hours in the icy cold until the border offices opened. I dug out all the woolly clothes I had faithfully carried round sweaty Argentina and Uruguay, knowing I would regret throwing them away. Then we sat on our backpacks with our sleeping bags wrapped round us, watching as dozens of people casually passed indifferently across the border in either direction – some hurrying to work, some drunk teenagers staggering home.

Finally the sun began to rise and staff slowly emerged to unlock the offices and we were through! Within a few steps we were in the Bolivian town of Villazon, through which we staggered with quick stops for toilets and money exchange on the way to the train station. Yes, we were to take a break from buses and make use of the railway that runs from Villazon to Oruro – saving some 18 hours of Bolivian buses and roads.

But, knowing Bolivia, I kind of guessed what would happen next – everyone we asked directions for the railway station shook their heads and warned us there were no trains! No! Please tell me we don’t have to cross Bolivia entirely by bus?!

Rachel and Salta's cable car

Me and Salta’s cable car

Salta in downpour

Salta in downpour

You can now go to part two!

A free walking tour of Buenos Aires

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.

Aristocratic tour of Buenos Aires with the animated Vicky

Aristocratic tour of Buenos Aires with the animated Vicky

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.

A smart street in Buenos Aires' Recoleta neighbourhood

A Parisian-style street in Buenos Aires’ Recoleta neighbourhood

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.

Soldiers at the Malvinas War monument, Buenos Aires

Soldiers at the Malvinas War monument, Buenos Aires

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.

Our tour group outside Recoleta Cemetery

Our tour group outside Recoleta Cemetery

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).

Gaston starting his tour opposite Buenos Aires' Congress building

Gaston (in the green t-shirt) starting his tour opposite Buenos Aires’ Congress building

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 and our group outside Cafe Tortoni

Gaston and our group outside Cafe Tortoni

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.

Buenos Aires' iconic Obelisco on the Avenida 9 de Julio

Buenos Aires’ iconic Obelisco on the Avenida 9 de Julio

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.

The hotel that went POP

After months staying in bare-basics hostels through South America, when I arrived in Buenos Aires I decided a couple of nights in a decent hotel were in order. Luck was on my side when I found a great deal online for the intriguing-sounding Pop Hotel.

Lush furnishings, plush carpets and sturdy oak furniture you will not find at Pop. This first budget boutique hotel to open in Buenos Aires was designed with slick minimalism in mind – modern lines and built-in furniture keep the rooms functional yet sleek, with splashes of primary colours or monochrome to make it go pop.

My room and the lobby of Pop Hotel, Buenos Aires. Photo © Rachel Ricks

My room and the lobby of Pop Hotel, Buenos Aires. Photos © Rachel Ricks

Mine was a junior room, which to my surprise incorporated a mini kitchen – a black faux-granite worktop with sunken bowl sink, a kettle, two mugs and a mini fridge, all of which were really useful, particularly as the hotel doesn’t serve breakfast. After a while travelling, it’s the simple things that mean the most and it was a nice treat to come back to the hotel in the afternoon and be able to make a cup of tea and curl up on the bed with a packet of biscuits and the TV remote in-hand. I was lucky as I had a corner room, so the L-shaped layout meant my kitchen area was tucked away out of sight from the bed, making it feel almost like a mini studio apartment. Being on the corner also meant I had no less than four windows with pleasant outlooks on leafy Palermo.

There was everything you could need, but no fuss: cable TV; telephone; air con; safe; hairdryer: check. Toiletries were a bit different to appeal to younger tastes: funky little bottles of shampoo, soap, and dehydrated face cloths that came in the size of pills that expand to full size in water.

The decent-sized bathroom had floor-to-ceiling white brick tiles with black grouting, maintaining the urban living vibe, and a contrasting red bowl sink on a black stand, which provided useful resting space for my toiletries.

I can see why ‘pop art’ or ‘urban’ style is an increasingly popular choice for hoteliers – you can cut corners and your décor budget considerably, without losing on style and credibility. There was a small black table in my room that, although useful, was made of flimsy MDF wood and steel legs that gave it an Ikea-cheapie feel.

The room did the job well though – the jumbo-sized bed had crisp white bedding, a fluffy duvet, though only two pillows. An alcove fitted with a clothes rail above a built-in desk with two deep drawers provided the alternative to a musty wardrobe.

The room lighting was alternative, with a bendy reading lamp attached to each side of the bed-head and a low-hanging lampshade on the overhead light.

The only problem was, everything was so trendy and immaculately clean and contemporary that it only further highlighted the objectionable state of my backpack and its contents after six months on the road.

Pop Hotel
Juan Ramírez de Velasco 793, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Best for:
Pop art-loving minimalists.
What I paid: Around US$30, through a special offer on Expedia.com.ar, otherwise the rate is US$110 +21% tax for a junior room.
Showers: Gas heated; you wait a while for the hot water to come through, but when it does, it’s excellent.
Internet: WiFi throughout; the enthusiastically named ‘Business Lounge’ has a desk with two PCs on the second-floor corridor.
Other facilities: The corridors on the other floors host the ‘Movies Lounge’ and the ‘Library Lounge’. I’d rather stay in the comfort of my room to watch a film or read a book, though. Rooms also come with iPod docks. Daily housekeeping. Laundry service.
Website: www.pophotelsbuenosaires.com

Crappy Christmas trees of South America

This will be my first Christmas away from home. I love Christmas to the point of obsession, but thankfully I haven’t missed it much out here as I’ve been too distracted by travelling and, well, it’s just not Christmassy. Most days are hot and sunny and I see more palm trees than Christmas trees. The cities don’t seem to make much effort with decorations either – but here are some of the trees I’ve spotted.

Workers from the town council were just constructing this ‘tree’ in Salta’s main plaza on the day I arrived (6th December), it’s the cheapest tree ever – just some tinsel wrapped round a wire up-ended cone…

Christmas tree in the main plaza, Salta, Argentina

Tinsel Christmas tree in the main plaza, Salta, Argentina

I don’t even remember seeing a Christmas tree in Córdoba or Buenos Aires.

This tree was randomly positioned – presumably to cheer up the dumping area for rubbish (residuos) in Colonia, Uruguay:

Rubbish Christmas tree, Colonia, Uruguay

Rubbish Christmas tree, Colonia, Uruguay

And this one in Montevideo is barely visible for all the lush green summer foliage of the real trees in the plaza around it:

Spot the tree in Montevideo

Spot the tree in Montevideo

At least this one in my hotel reception has been rigorously decorated:

Hotel Christmas effort

Hotel Christmas effort

Feliz navidad, dear readers xx

The unexpected city

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen I’ve been moving quite rapidly lately – through four different countries in as many weeks. And many of the places I’ve stopped, I’ve not particularly enjoyed – not only was the strain of budget travel taking its toll, but I just wasn’t seeing anything I liked. As you know, I didn’t warm to La Paz, and the cities of Argentina were loud, brash, scruffy and incredibly hot and sticky. Then I arrived in Uruguay and it was literally a breath of fresh air.

In fact, I like it so much, I think I’ve found the next place where I’m going to settle for a while. The capital, Montevideo, is one of the most pleasant cities I’ve been to.

My days here so far I have spent walking every inch of the city, and the more I see the more I like. For starters, its position on the coast is ideal – the old town and port area are on a promontory so when wandering the city streets, you regularly catch a glimpse of the ocean, or receive a fresh sea breeze as it whistles up the street.

One Sunday evening, I walked along the seafront Ramblas for about five miles, enjoying the sun lowering over the Atlantic, along with local families, couples and groups of teenagers civilly sipping their maté.

In the city centre, I keep discovering excellent-quality cafés maintaining their ‘60s décor and waiting staff, serving delicious pizzas, pastas (many Italians settled in Uruguay), chavitos (massive sandwiches filled with steak, ham and egg) and more, all coming in portions fit for four (which suits me – as anyone who knows me knows, I can eat).

People are cosmopolitan yet very amiable, and the streets, even in the centre, are spacious and crowd-free, while the traffic is light and – more importantly – polite.

There are plenty of museums I’m still waiting to investigate; I’m looking forward to dinner in one of the grills in the smart port market; and there are lots of bookshops in the University area begging to be rummaged through.

Best of all, Uruguay imports some of my favourite chocolate from England, along with its finest teas. Yep, I’m happy to stick around for a while.

Rachel Ricks in Montevideo's Plaza Independencia

Me in Montevideo’s Plaza Independencia

Bar-Grill in Montevideo, Uruguay

My favourite caff

Bookshop in Montevideo

Libreria Puro Verso, Old Town

Bookshop in University area of Montevideo

Bookshop in University area

Rachel Ricks in front of the 17th-century city gate in Montevideo

Me in front of the 18th-century city gate in Montevideo

Montevideo is the 2013 Ibero-American Capital of Culture – see what’s happening on their culture and arts website.

See my trio of guides to Montevideo.