Checked out of the Mundial Hotel feeling ropey, and checked into Moreno Hotel instead, a classy, luxurious place set in an old building above a posh Italian restaurant, in a different part of town. It was a welcome change from the bitterly cold Mundial – in the Moreno, our fantastic, large room with enough space to swing 10 large cats tied together by their tails had a heating system that actually worked. The 2 beds were a bit wider than Mundial’s too. The polished wooden floor, leather sofa and reclining chairs gave the feel of an apartment of a well-heeled young socialite – and indeed the rooms are converted apartments. At the top of the building, the Moreno had made good use of the lovely uncluttered rooftop to strategically scatter orange-cushioned loungers, all-weather sofas, and a big jacuzzi. The views of the surrounding skyscrapers at one end, old buildings and churches at the other were just a glimpse of the spectacular and somehow not jarring contrasts of modern and traditional in this city.
Alex and I decided to go to La Boca today, by the Riachuelo river – “not the place for casual strolls” according to the Lonely Planet, and a place where “you can’t walk to. Please take taxi” according to the manager of the Moreno. It was a lovely crisp, sunny winters day, and we fancied a walk. So we walked. We’re not idiots, we don’t carry bumbags full of cash, sling our cameras around our necks, wear shorts and sandals with white socks, or wear t-shirts proclaiming our love of the host country. We carry dummy wallets, put $100 US inside our scruffy shoes lest we do get mugged, and we don’t make a habit of carrying credit cards. From what I’ve been reading about England, there’s much more chance of getting jumped by a load of scallies wearing tracksuits and hooded tops in any English city of town in broad daylight than there is of getting into trouble in Buenos Aires. Common sense must prevail. Real people live in La Boca, with real lives. You can’t be scared of everyone. And so we walked, taking our time, enjoying the sights, chatting to the locals, as the bright yellow tour bus roared past straight to final destination to whisk the tourists as far away from real life as possible.
Our real purpose of walking to Boca was to visit the infamous Bombonera footy stadium, home of Boca Juniors, arguably the best team in Argentina, and one of the best in South America. Batistuta, Simeone, Riquelme, Canniga, Tevez, and, of course, Diego Maradona, have all played for Boca. We got there after an hour or two of walking the streets and parks of this area of the city. We walked through San Telmo. Lovely cobbled streets, a real studenty vibe, full of little cafes. Charming. Further on, we were in less touristy territory. Policemen stood on every street corner though.. It felt safe. The parks were lovely, full of normal people chatting, catching up, reading newspapers, playing chess. We saw a professional dog-handler, a young chap leading 10 well-groomed posh dogs around. Good money in that. Posh people pay good money for their pampered pooches to be walked, wined and dined by handsome young gentlemen like this.
We arrived in La Boca, a real blue-collar area of tight streets and terraced houses, run-down and ‘raffish to the core’, apparently. We entered the Bombonera, and had a look around the museum, which was a collection of Boca shirts through the ages, a ‘wall of stars’ featuring every player who has ever played for Boca, footage of classic Boca matches, and of course the trophy room, featuring all their league and cup trophies. We joined a tour of the stadium, led, not by a local from La Boca, but by a Colombian named Diego. He did his best to help us feel the pride and passion of those who support Boca. “To greet the away fans, in their tiny section, there are no toilets. And the emergency exit, is only a painting. There is no escape.” He explained, matter-of factly. “We don’t sell them any food, any drink. Nothing. That’s how we welcome away fans.” The stadium is very steep, and the seats on the either length of the pitch are all pre-sold to fans for the season, which leaves one end behind the goals for the famously passionate Boca fans. A number 12 is painted on the terraces here, to show how important the fans are – like an extra man for the team. We stood here in the terraces, as Diego explained the ritual of what happens when Boca score a goal. Everybody charges to the huge metal fence separating the fans from the pitch, and climb right up to the top if the can – a very high and difficult climb. Diego wanted us to try it. Alex, subdued, sprang into life at this idea. I felt sorry for Alex. 11 years ago, he had been standing in these very terraces, amongst the Boca fans during a game on a glorious sunny afternoon. Now, on an overcast bitter day at the same place, the place was empty save our tour group, and the harsh contrast had soured his mood. “You should never go back. I’ve seen too much. Too much, too young….” he grumbled, before sprinting to the fence on Diego’s count. I did the same, but could only get up half-way, the thin metal wire cutting into my hands . Alex, however, made it to the top, maybe he needed the challenge, something new to do. He came down carefully – a fall would probably be followed with a visit to the hospital. I can’t believe during the games that nobody has fallen to serious injury, or their death. Maybe if they do fall it is broken by the mass of bodies underneath. After this we went to the changing rooms – well, the away changing room, we weren’t allowed into Boca’s. Then to the press room, then it was over. An interesting and informative tour, and the guide, Diego, did his best to warm and cheer us all on this freezing day. I almost bought a Boca shirt from the stadium shop, then headed across the road where all the shops were selling fake versions. Right across the road! Even the girl in the stadium admitted to wearing a fake top.
We walked away from the stadium and came to what La Boca is also famous for – Caminito – the famous street where the houses are painted in bright primary colours. Italian immigrants who came to La Boca and worked in the meat-packing plant and warehouses, also painting the shipping barges, splashed the leftover paint on their houses – and the colourful streets have since become a major tourist attraction. An old train station still stands here. In the streets are lots of touristy shops and restaurants, and people doing the tango for spare change. It exudes a certain charm, for sure, and at night gets really lively. Alex and I wandered around for a while soaking it it. I bought a painting of Caminito, painted by a local artist with no hands – the picture was painted entirely with a paintbrush in the artists mouth. Incredible.
Alex and I walked back at a brisker pace, and found ourselves in San Telmo, with it’s old world charm, impressive period houses and cafes, and cobbled streets – a world away from La Boca. We stopped at one of the ‘old world’ cafes for a cappucino and a submarino (or a chocolate caliente) and some tostadas. Then it was back to the hotel for a powernap before heading out into the night.
Tonight we decided to treat ourselves. We took a cab to Palermo, the ‘posh’ part of town, and the safest place in which to stroll of an evening, apparently. This is an area full of gated houses and condominiums, parks and lakes, fancy restaurants and pricey bars. We went to Don Julios, a parrilla and a popular place selling excellent steak. The cowhide table mats are a nice touch. I ordered a skirt steak, Alex a tenderloin, and we washed it down with a bottle of malbec. Perfecto. Now we were ready to have a proper drink. We found an area of studenty bars and had a fernet each, feeling a tad overdressed in our light-weight tropical suit jackets. The air was full of latin energy and exuberant chatter, it was good to sit down and just soak it in. I asked the waitress for tips on a good place to go, and she recommended me Kika, a club. Alex and I followed the crowd there. Everybody was going. We paid a hefty cover charge which didn’t include a drink (high entry fee presumably to keep out the riff-raff – but it didn’t keep us out), then found out it was free before midnight and the bouncers had tricked the 2 stupid foreigners into paying, whilst all the local chaps breezed in without paying a cent. Damn.
Kika was dark, sweaty, full of naughty gyrating, couples locked in passionate embraces, people sharking, circling the packs of latin ladies and picking off the weak, the old or the drunk. The music was a mix of dirty reggaeton, merengue, salsa, and tango, And everybody could dance. Alex and I drank a fernet and coke and watched the events unfolding. Clubs in Argentina are a lot of fun, people are more concerned with having a good time than getting wasted or looking immaculate. And people are really friendly. No moody pouting in here. What a refreshing change. After an hour of reggaeton, it was definitely time to go, so Alex and I jumped in a cab back to the Moreno. It had been an eventful day and night.