Buenos Aires – the best bits

Best steaks

There’s no denying that Argentinian steaks are fantastic. Apologies to all those veggies out there but nothing beats a great big slab of juicy meat and you’ll certainly be spoilt for choice in Buenos Aires. There are parrillas on practically every street corner and I’m sure there are plenty of hidden gems, but here are a couple of our favourites…

If you’re looking for something a bit special, with a great atmosphere, then you can’t go wrong at La Cabrera. It’s not as cheap as many parrillas in town but it’s certainly popular and many will say it’s the best steak house in the city. You can book, but only early evening – we managed to reserve a table for 9.15pm (practically lunchtime by BA standards) with a little eyelash fluttering but if you want to dine later than this you’ll have to join the queue outside. The upside is that you get free sparkling wine whilst you wait so it’s not all bad. Still, when we arrived, the restaurant was already busy and there was plenty of atmosphere.

You can order steaks in a range of sizes from small (200g) to large (600g) – a medium (400g) is about the right size if you’re hungry and they don’t mind if you share. This is one of the few restaurants where we found that they cooked the meat the way we asked, a lot of places tend to overcook the meat. But the best thing about it is the huge selection of side dishes/condiments you get – tapenade, roasted onions, mashed potato, sundried tomatoes, salad, miniature corn, garlic mushrooms – and all for free! Plus a lollipop too when you leave– what more could you want?!

La Cabrera - steaks and sides

It’s certainly one of the more touristy places in town and one of the more expensive too but if you are looking for something out of the ordinary this is definitely the place to come.

If, on the other hand, you want a more local, authentic parrilla experience, then we found a great little place up near Las Canitas. There is no sign on the front, the glass is tinted so you can’t see in and if you didn’t know it was there you’d probably miss it. But inside is a great little restaurant, completely unpretentious but serving some of the best steak we tasted whilst in BA (and we tasted a lot!). It’s pretty cheap (50 pesos for bife de chorizo), the staff are friendly and the ladies get a free miniature bottle of sparkling wine to take home with them. An absolutely charming place and packed every night with locals. I won’t reveal its exact location here as the whole point is that it’s a bit of an insider secret but if you’re heading to BA and you want to know where it is just email me and I’ll point you in the right direction.

Secret parrilla (pic courtesy of Crash Williams)

Best markets

If you’re only in BA for a few days then try and make one of those a Sunday. Then you’ve got two excellent markets to choose from (you could even try squeezing both into one day) – San Telmo and Feria de Mataderos.

San Telmo is supposedly an antiques market, and whilst these stalls still dominate Plaza Dorrego, these days the market has spread down Defensa right back towards Plaza Mayor. Here they sell pretty much anything from knock off La Boca shirts to llama jumpers imported from Bolivia, to hand- knitted Barbie outfits (I kid you not). If you’re looking for souvenirs, this is a great option, but even if you’re not, it’s brilliant for a Sunday afternoon stroll. There’s live music playing in the street, lots of cafes and bars where you can stop for a drink or a bite to eat, and later in the evening, live tango in the square. You can easily while away a good few hours just moseying around and people come here as much for the atmosphere as for the antiques.

San Telmo market

Alternatively, if you fancy something a bit different, then head to Feria de Mataderos. It’s a fair way out of town but there are plenty of buses that stop there (check  www.feriademataderos.com.ar for details), just ask the driver when to get off. Although many of the stalls here are selling handicrafts similar to what you will find in San Telmo, what different here is the food and entertainment on offer.

Feria de Mataderos

There are asados galore serving steak, chorizo and even armadillo sandwiches. You can also sample regional specialities here such as locro (beef stew), humitas (a mash of corn, sautéed onions and spices) and tamales (like humitas but with minced meat inside). Be warned though, the queues are lengthy  so be prepared to wait, although some of the stalls have a ticketing system so you can collect your number and have a wander for 15 minutes before returning to the queue.

BBQ armadillo anyone?

Again, there’s live music here, but this time on a central stage. As the band play folk music, people line the streets to take part in traditional Argentine dances. It’s a bit like country dancing but more sedate, or something you’d see in Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes they also use scarves and many people are dressed in traditional costumes. Some are having a bit of a laugh but others take it very seriously and obviously come every week to show off their talents to the crowds. Anyone can join in but we don’t know the steps so we leave it to the experts.

Dancing at Feria de Mataderos

Around the corner, and you can witness a bunch of gauchos strutting their stuff. It’s a bit hard to see what they are doing exactly but they gallop off down the road and then seem to be trying to hit some sort of target. I’m sure if you are Argentinian you might understand it a bit better, but it’s still nice to see them practicing a traditional art.

Gauchos strutting their stuff

If you’re interested in buying clothes or jewellery, then the best market to head for is in Palermo. During the week, Plaza Serrano is quiet and surrounded by bars and clubs, but at the weekend, the place transforms into a bustling market and the bars convert into pop-up shops. All of a sudden there are hundreds of people wandering the streets and filling out the many cafes surrounding the plaza. You won’t get any tango or gauchos here but it’s still a great way to spend an afternoon (the market is on Saturdays and Sundays) and it’s a lot more trendy than either San Telmo or Mataderos.

Best tango

You can’t come to Buenos Aires without seeing some tango, it’s just criminal. But there are many different ways and places to experience it so here’s a few ideas.

The best places to catch some tango for free (except for a donation to the hat) are either at San Telmo, where they dance in Plaza Dorrego on Sunday evenings or in La Boca, where most of the restaurants have tango dances at weekends (maybe in the week too, but we went on a Saturday). Although you won’t experience the same spectacle as going to a show, and you might have to excuse their outfits (when it’s only a few degrees above freezing they tend to wrap up in jumpers, gloves, scarves – and who can blame them?!) it’s certainly authentic and some of the dancers are pretty good.

Tango in La Boca

There are countless professional tango shows on offer, and some of them are quite frankly extortionate. They are catering for the tourists, and many include a show, but from what I’ve heard many of them are more Las Vegas than Buenos Aires. A good halfway house, if you want to see something a bit more flashy than a street performance but don’t want to spend a fortune and want something more traditional is the Bien de Tango show at Centro Cultural Borges.  The standard price is 80 pesos (just over a tenner) but we got half price tickets on Groupon. It’s a small theatre, they have a live band (well, a piano, violin, double bass and accordion), two singers, and five couples dancing. The standard is very good, particularly when the couples are dancing solos (they also do group dances) and I think it’s a great little show for a very reasonable price.

The last option, and the best if you want to have a go yourself, is to go to a milonga (dance hall). We didn’t go ourselves but there are plenty of places all over town where you can get to see real people dancing the famous Argentine tango.

Best spots for a beer

There are dozens and dozens of bars to choose from in Palermo, where we were staying, from cute little record stores to Irish pubs to fancy cocktail joints, you’re sure to find something to suit you. One of our favourites was Cronico, right on Plaza Serrano, an unpretentious bar with a bit of a rock theme going on – they play classic concert clips on the various flat screen TVs dotted about the place. It’s reasonably cheap and also a good place to watch the footie (La Copa was on whilst we were in BA), plus you get free peanuts when you order beer. All in all, a great little spot and worth checking out if you are in the area.

Cronico - great litle bar in Palermo

Another great area of town to stop for a drink is Puerto Madero. Best on a sunny weekend afternoon, when you can watch the rollerbladers whizzing by, it feels a lot like London’s South Bank. There are plenty of cafes and bars lining the water’s edge, although it gets busy and the service can be a little lacking. Still, it’s a very pleasant place to enjoy a few cervezas and soak up the atmosphere.

Puerto Madero

…and a few things that annoyed us!

Dog poo

If you look up, then BA is a lovely city with some great architecture, and many have said it is reminiscent of Paris in the 60s. However, you don’t get to enjoy the views as you are constantly looking at the pavement, making sure you don’t step in the dog poop which is EVERYWHERE. We saw people letting their pooches take a dump right in the middle of the pavement and then just walk off. Somehow, we managed to not step in any for the whole two months we were there but there were some close calls. Sort it out BA, it’s disgusting.

Money

Ok, so coins are short in Argentina, but they take their obsession with having the right change to a whole other level in Buenos Aires. Give them the right change and they’ll almost kiss you, squealing in delight; try and break even a note with a value of around £10 and face the wrath of the shopkeeper as they take a sharp intake of breath and stare at you like you’re the devil.

The other wholly inexplicable ‘quirk’ is the payment system in shops. So you go into a pharmacy/bakery/coffee shop. You tell the guy at the counter what you want, he hands it over and then you give him your money, right? Wrong. You tell the guy what you want, he gets it off the shelf, gives you a receipt, you take the receipt to another counter, pay the person at the till, he signs/stamps the receipt, you take it back to the first guy and he gives you your stuff. Efficient, huh?

Still, despite these minor irritations, we still had a great time in Buenos Aires, and it’s all part of the charm really (except maybe the dog poo).

Deciding what to take…

One of the things we’ve found most useful in preparing for our trip is reading websites and other travellers’ blogs to get an idea of what to take with us. One of our favourites has been www.travelindependent.info which has loads of information on what you should and shouldn’t bother packing and why, as well as some good product recommendations.

A great blog that we’ve been following closely which has some brilliant preparation tips, not only for packing but also for budgeting and general planning is www.neverendingvoyage.com. These guys are travelling indefinitely and have managed to pack all their belongings into one 35l and one 40l rucksack which is just incredible!!

Whilst we admire the philosophy behind packing light and the discipline involved in taking a bag small enough to carry as hand luggage, we knew we’d never be able, or more accurately, willing, to be so ruthless. We’re too vain (Leah) and too gadget-obsessed (Rich) to manage with just the bare essentials. So for us it was important to strike the right balance between a bag that was manageable and taking the little luxuries that would make roughing it…well…less rough!

35l was a little too ambitious for us so we opted for matching his and hers Berghaus Verdens which at 45+8l are still a lot smaller than a lot of people take for long term travel. Another great buy, and a tip which we picked up from both the above sources, was several sets of packing cubes which help to organise your stuff and condense your clothes so they take up less space.

The next step was to lay out everything we were taking and weigh it all so that we knew how much we had to carry and where we needed to lose some weight. Our target was 11kg each and after the initial weigh-in we were up at nearly 13kg so we needed to get rid of 4kg somewhere!! The first things to go were the guidebooks – a massive 1.5kg . We already have Kindles but have found reference books a little challenging as you tend to flip from one section to another and back again which is not that easy on an electronic device. But with our Kindles and netbook combined we were sure we’d manage so the books were dumped.

Next to face the cull was the toiletries – by far the heaviest items. Out went all the non-essentials and the medical kit got a trimming too. Once we’d dumped some clothes and streamlined the shoes we were ready to pack up our bags. We’re now at 12kg each – certainly not the lightest we could have been but the best balance for us. We’re lucky that we’re coming back to London for a couple of days after our three months in Asia so if we find it’s still too much or if there are things we just don’t use, we can dump them before heading on to South America.

So for those of you that are interested, and because these lists were invaluable to us, here’s the full rundown of what we’re taking. Like we said, it’s by no means the least amount possible so please bear that in mind and don’t judge us!!!

LEAH

As anybody who knows me will tell you, I have about enough clothes to wear a different outfit every day for a year. Well, maybe not quite that many, but you get the idea. So for me, one of the most difficult aspects of packing light was choosing what clothes to take and what to leave behind.

In order to maximise the clothes that I’m bringing with me I’ve adopted a very simple philosophy: layering. This means I won’t have to bring anything big and bulky, even for the colder weather we’ll be facing on some parts of our trip, and can mix and match clothes depending on the climate. For example, all the dresses I’ve packed can be worn on their own when it’s hot, with a t-shirt underneath when it’s a bit chillier, with a cardigan in the evening, or over a polo neck with leggings or tights when it gets really cold.

I could still have cut down more – there’s no way I need five dresses and I could have easily ditched a pair of trousers and a few tops, but for the time being I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’ll see how I get on in Asia and then if I change my mind I can always get rid of more stuff during the London pit stop. One thing I realised when packing our stuff is that girls’ clothes are much smaller and lighter than boys’ so I have a definite advantage over Richard!!!

Clothes

  • 3 x trousers
  • 2 x shorts
  • 5 x dresses
  • Leggings
  • 6 x vests
  • 2 x t-shirts
  • 3 x long sleeve tops
  • 2 x shirts
  • 3 x bras
  • Sports bra
  • 8 x underwear
  • 4 x socks
  • 2 x bikinis
  • Hoodie
  • Waterproof jacket

Shoes

Other

  • Sarong
  • Day bag
  • Small make up bag with a few basics, plus a couple of bits of jewellery and some hairbands/clips etc.
  • Sunglasses
  • 2 x spectacles
  • Contact lenses + 1 bottle of solution

For South America only (where it will be cold at times!)

  • Polo neck jumper
  • 2 x 60 denier tights
  • Woolly hat
  • Scarf
  • Gloves

RICH

Clothes

  • Jeans
  • 2 x cargo trousers
  • Shorts
  • Fisherman’s pants
  • 4 x t-shirts
  • 3 x long sleeve tops
  • 1 x shirts
  • 6 x pants
  • 6 x socks
  • Swimming trunks
  • Hoodie
  • Waterproof jacket

Shoes

 

Other

  • Sarong
  • Day bag
  • Sunglasses

For South America only (where it will be cold at times!)

  • Thermal long sleeve t-shirt
  • Long johns
  • Woolly hat
  • Scarf
  • Gloves

 

BOTH

 

Essentials

  • 2 x passports
  • Vaccination cards
  • Passport photos
  • Cash (small amount)
  • Credit card
  • Travel money card (as back up)
  • Driving licence

Toiletries

  • 2 x travel towels
  • 2 x Lush shampoo bars (a great tip from our friends at Never Ending Voyage)
  • 2 x toothbrushes, Toothpaste
  • 2 x stick deodorant
  • Body lotion, Face cream
  • Anti-frizz leave-in conditioner (Leah)
  • Hair mud (Rich)
  • Razor (Leah), Electric Shaver (Rich)
  • Suncream
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Insect repellent
  • Nail scissors, Tweezers
  • Comb
  • Wet wipes
  • Medical kit

Gadgets (Rich)

 

Early on I decided I was not going to be happy, regardless where I was in the world, unless I had some gadgets to keep me company.

Initially this was to be a simple, low cost netbook, but then we decided it would be rather nice if we could watch a few TV shows or movies en route so I bought an Asus netbook. It was useless. Video skipped, applications crashed under the slightest strain. It went back to Amazon for a prompt refund.

So I went back to the drawing board and ended up with an Acer Ferrari One netbook. It is without a doubt the most hideous personal computer available on Amazon (unless you’re Italian). Its ‘almost’ Ferrari red case and badge with accompanying racing tyre feet and ‘revving’ sound effect on start-up is an Olympic example of terrible co-branding. I’ve covered the whole thing in grey duct tape.

It is however a bloody good laptop – fast, light and can handle almost all current software…which got me thinking…

So, to accompany the laptop I’ve decided to bring along a small external soundcard and portable midi controller. Together with software Traktor, Ableton and Reason I’m going to have a blast. An extra 1/2 kg to my rucksack but I’m not budging, it’s coming. I will attempt to upload a few videos later in the trip.

We’re also taking a Wowee travel speaker, which is a mono speaker but packs a massive vibration unit which adds some unexpected bass to any music. It charges via USB so also a better option than a battery hungry alternative.

Music on the go will be two Sandisk MP3 players and a fistful of 4 GB micro cards.

 

Miscellaneous

  • 2 x sleeping bag liners
  • Torch
  • Small notebook
  • Playing cards
  • Alarm clock
  • Power adaptor
  • 2 x small padlocks
  • Earplugs
  • 2 x eye masks
  • 2 x travel pillows
  • Sewing kit
  • Penknife
  • Wet sack