I’m surrounded by circles of people strumming guitars and charangos, a ukulele-type affair (according to my novice eyes) especially popular with the the porteños of Argentina. There’s a bunch of youngsters juggling, a girl practicing a sort of elegant circus act, and hordes of others sipping on mate tea; Parque Centenario, in the Caballito district of Buenos Aires, is alive with creativity and spirit, and I’m quickly learning that the South American clichés exist for a reason – the whole city seems to emanate a passion that my inner British prude sadly isn’t quite able to appropriate.
That’s not to say I haven’t been trying. I launched into the BA scene with a tango class, only to see my moves overshadowed by the stunning show that followed at La Ventana – a beautifully ornate hall covered in dark wood that seems to breathe the sensuality of the tango itself.
But its opulence is a deceivingly far cry from the origins of the tango – namely working class suburbs in the early 20th century – when an influx of Italians, Spanish and other European immigrants brought with them their own cultures and cuisine that’s still very much evident, not least in the rows of ice cream shops and pizzerias that line the likes of Avenida Corientes, the main theatre district.
It’s at the Archie, an old artist’s studio turned creative space, that I learn the true source of the tango; El Abasto, an edgy, off-beat neighbourhood that’s somehow managed to escape the tourist track despite its central location.
Donated to anyone looking to practice and showcase their creative talents, from music to circus acts, painting to plays, creative spaces like this provide a much-cherished scene for self-expression in a country where, less than 40 years ago, independent thought was suppressed by totalitarian regime.
It’s a history I’ve been learning about through muted references, mutterings here and there. Every Thursday, elderly women wearing white scarves march around the Plaza de Mayo, the seat of the city’s protests, set in front of the ornate, pink-coloured Government House. Stepping out of a white van, they wander slowly, quietly, thoughtfully, round and round, in quiet protest against their lost grand-children, taken from imprisoned mothers in an operation that still today remains an enigma. No-one knows where the children went; all records that could leave any traces were destroyed. These same women, known internationally as the ‘Madres’, have been taking to the square since 1977, when they became the first members of the public to openly rebel against the regime.
They’re a testament to the spirit of questioning and challenging that can be seen almost every day at the Plaza, where protesters continue to fight for justice in all areas. Political struggles aren’t quite over – Argentinians battle with one of the highest inflation rates in the world – but that doesn’t detract from the sense of life that beats in Buenos Aires; if anything, it adds to it.
The city’s reputation as one of the world’s party capitals is well-earned, with fashionable neighbourhoods like Palermo filled with well-heeled locals and tourists dancing to electro until the sun comes up. If you leave before 6am you probably haven’t had a good night – clubs start getting lively about the time most places here close up. Live music venues across the city play everything from hardcore rock to soft jazz, and weeknights are no less lively. Every Monday, 17-piece percussion band La Bomba de Tiempo takes over the warehouse turned cultural centre Konex, busting out latino beats on conga drums and drawing in a young, cool crowd from across the city and beyond.
Then there are the hordes of speakeasies – such as Frank’s, where you have to dial an unknown code into a phone box to enter – and the closed-door restaurants like Casa Felix, where pioneer-of-the-concept Diego invites you into his home (at a secret address) and provides an indulgent five-course tasting menu. Unconventionality has most definitely reached the theatre scene too, with Teatro Ciego playing host to a sense-engaging spectacular which takes place in the pitch black to recreate the feeling of being blind (A Ciagas con Luz). That’s before we even get on to the city’s world-famous steak scene, with restaurants like Siga La Vaca offering a whole experience in themselves.
With all that going on during the the dark hours it’s surprising the city manages to stay awake in the day, but somehow it continues to pulse with the type of energy I saw at the aforementioned Parque Centenario. On weekends there’s Recoleta – an upmarket, marble-studded neighbourhood inspired by French architecture – which comes alive with bands and acoustic singers entertaining crowds. Performers take to a large green space right next to the city’s most famous cemetery, where past presidents, politicians and others (including local hero Evita) are commemorated with ornate crypts.
That energy, passion and creativity seems to unite the city, running through its centre and touching every aspect of life within it – from the traditional, cobbled streets of San Telmo to the brightly coloured streets of La Boca. It’s what draws in travellers from across the world each year and makes Buenos Aires stand out as one of the most vibrant cities on the planet. Whatever influence the country’s political strife may or may not have had on this whole culture, there’s no denying its intoxicating effects, and it’s safe to say I’m well and truly charmed.