The urban rhythms of Argentina’s capital enthral many – but scratch beneath its concrete façade to discover wild reserves, untamed delta and a magical taste of pampas life
Cattle dung, grilled beef and horse sweat. It’s a perfume that might not have universal appeal but for me it was a sign that I had come to one of Buenos Aires’ (BA) most authentic neighbourhoods.
Its name is Mataderos – Spanish for ‘slaughterhouses’ – and, since 1901, cattle have been driven, corralled and killed here to feed the ever-expanding population of the city and to satisfy the burgeoning demand for prime beef overseas. And on every Sunday for the past 30 years, a cluster of streets around the crossroads at Avenidas Lisandro de la Torre and De Los Corrales are closed and taken over by the Argentine capital’s only country fair.
When I arrived, sometime after ten in the morning, scores of stalls were already busy selling everything from wooden handicrafts and mate tea gourds bearing patriotic insignia to long coils of red salami, crumbly country cheeses and jars of quince jelly.
There were also tango CDs, but the signature music was most definitely folk, and by noon the centre of the marketplace was given over to dancing couples – some in casuals, some in full gaucho regalia – dancing the lively, romantic chacarera.
Tango dancers in Buenos Aires (Dreamstime)
I wandered around, happiest when most aimless, and chatted to an old chap who lived nearby over coffee – served from the back of converted 1920s Ford Model A by a Brazilian from Curitiba.
My local connection lectured me on the Falklands, politics, corruption and the usual staples of Argentine discourse, and then I roamed a little more, soon building up enough of an appetite to enjoy a sandwich of tender vacío – flank steak – and a glass of craft beer.
This was rus in urbe (countryside in the city) of the finest kind. The residents of Buenos Aires might be known as porteños – port people – but the gaze in Mataderos is definitely directed inland, towards the pampas rather than the sea.
I got chatting to some friendly young guys manning the beer stall.
“Mataderos is still the real thing,” said Miguel. “It’s safe out here and friendly, and it’s more for locals than for foreigners.”
As I left, a boy was warming his horse up for an old country sport called corrida de sortija, in which riders galloped along holding aloft a twig that they hold out to hook a ring. It’s like low-cost jousting, but harder.
However, I was already sated by my time in the magical ‘urban pampas’ of the Mataderos Fair, so I jumped on the No. 55 bus back to the city proper.
A gaucho rides in Buenos Aires (Chris Moss)
Whether gazing out of your plane window, from a rooftop bar downtown or from your hotel bedroom, at some stage you’re going to notice that BA is one of the world’s megasprawls.
Spread out across what was once relatively flat pampas, and built in a bit of a hurry from the 1900s on – the local standard for a home is a mid-rise apartment – it can, in the wrong weather, look like a grim, grey mess.
But the Argentine capital hides plenty of charms, and among its urban maze lie special pockets of greenery. Having indulged in museums, galleries, café-hopping and craft shopping, these open spaces allow you to get active and breathe with a bit more confidence than you might on the smoggy streets of downtown.
Parque Tres de Febrero (Dreamstime)
I began by hitting Parque Tres de Febrero, just a short taxi ride from my hotel in Palermo Viejo. Landscaped in the 1870s, the former estate of tyrannical caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas is now BA’s largest city park.
It also goes by the names of Parque Palermo and Bosques de Palermo (Forests of Palermo), the latter in reference to those areas where sizable rosewood, palm, jacaranda and eucalyptus trees still stand.
After inhaling their perfume, and that of the thousands of roses found here, I discovered a little gallery (Museo Sivori), perused its art and had a coffee. In BA, you’re never far from culture, even in the middle of a park.
The next day I went semi-rural again with a cycling trip. I met young guide Mariano and three other cyclists at the Plaza San Martín, beneath the monument to José de San Martín, Argentina’s liberator.
Jose de San Martin monument on Plaza San Martin (Dreamstime)
It’s easy to overlook the plazas, but they are strikingly beautiful places. This one was packed with white magnolias, pines and oaks, and in one corner stood a massive, century-old gomero tree that required props to hold up its branches, which stretched out like long dark limbs across the ground.
After a brief run-through of Argentine Independence (the country celebrated its 200th anniversary in July 2016), we set off on a whistle-stop tour of the area’s historical sites: the Malvinas War monument, the English clock – a 76m-high replica of Big Ben and gift from the city’s expat community – and Retiro railway station, which was built by the British.
Mariano skilfully avoided taking sides, but talked openly about the corruption and dictators of the late 1970s and early 1980s. We also saw the city’s famous Immigrants’ Hotel, where poorer settlers were once fed and watered before going off to start new lives.
We then cycled through Puerto Madero, a pedestrianised dock development, passing flash apartments, corporate HQs, a couple of five-star hotel and the excellent Fortabat Collection. This private gallery showcases the art collection of the late Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, who, rather appropriately given its abundance in the city, made her billions in cement.
Following a ride along the Costanera Sur, an old promenade dating from BA’s belle époque of the 1920s and ’30s, we pedalled into the Reserva Ecológica – a wonderful urban wilderness rescued from the city’s bulldozers.
Then came some seriously urban sections, as we passed under a motorway flyover and into a housing development built by the Peróns, then on to the La Boca neighbourhood, to see the picturesque but, for me, too busy multi-hued pseudo-slum houses of Caminito.
We grabbed a coffee and then rode back via the Plaza de Mayo, political epicentre of the nation and busy with barricades and posters. There’s always a march or a protest being planned against this wonderful backdrop, where Evita once promised the world to her beloved "shirtless ones."
Caminito traditional tourist walk in La Boca (Dreamstime)
After a day or so of heavy exploration, I kicked back for a while, enjoying Buenos Aires’ more obvious metropolitan pleasures: moody old cafés, empty churches, bars and steakhouses, bookshops and bakeries.
It’s not difficult to get drawn in to the city. Buenos Aires is set on an immense grid, easy to navigate and flat, meaning it’s ideal for strolling. I was soon enticed into wandering its celebrated streets: Avenida Corrientes, the theatrical and fun thoroughfare; 9 de Julio, the absurdly wide swathe in the centre of the city; Lavalle and Florida, the two most famous pedestrianised streets downtown, full of snack bars, cinemas and evangelical churches; and Defensa, a street as old as any in Buenos Aires, which took me out to the Parque Lezama where, it is believed, Pedro de Mendoza first founded the city in 1536.
After a couple of days’ exploring, I found myself back at the Reserva Ecológica, only this time on two feet instead of two wheels. I was in the company of Horacio Matarasso, ornithologist, guide and leading member of Aves Argentinas – the local equivalent of the RSPB and celebrating its centenary this year.
It was one of those days porteños like to call a ‘Día Peronista’ – cloudless, sunny, fresh and perfect for both walking and watching.
We started off by strolling along the edge of the park, spotting a few of the species that proliferate in the capital: mockingbirds, kiskadees (known by their onomatopoeic cry of ‘benteveo’, which sounds like the phrase, ‘I see you well’), cowbirds, ovenbirds, red-crested cardinals.
A long lake borders the reserve, home to coots, teal and the lemon-winged wattled jacana, which has long toes to allow it to walk on lily pads and, to the naked eye, on water, too.
Wattled jacana (Dreamstime)
Then, using a newly opened entrance into the Reserva proper, we were suddenly amid a lush low forest of native shrubs and trees. Soon we were ticking off five, ten, 15 birds – two types of hummingbird, two kinds of parakeet and plenty of hawks.
Birders rate species from I to V (low to high) based on the likelihood of seeing them; while we saw plenty of category IV and V species but we also spied a category I, a rare sighting of a tanager. Horacio was as delighted as I was.
As we walked, we passed athletic joggers, older walkers and cyclists. It was a uniquely bucolic, super-safe area, unlike my experience of other urban green spaces. Horacio explained that it was an ecologically vital zone, part of a longer corridor that accompanied the Paraná river right up into Brazil.
There were benches to sit on and open spaces of lawn for stretching and resting, but no food or shops, limited signage and – a rarity in any Argentine green space – no barbecue areas.
“The City Government sometimes tries to treat the reserve as just another park,” said Horacio. “But it’s not. It’s more like a national park, and needs to be seen as that.”
Horacio is the latest in a long line of green-thinking Argentine urbanites. To pay tribute to one of their finest, I took the No. 148 bus out to the working-class suburb of Florencio Varela, site of the tiny Museo Histórico Provincial Guillermo Hudson. The museum is named after Anglo-American nature writer William Henry Hudson, born and raised in the pampas just south of Buenos Aires.
I didn’t expect to see too many of his beloved birds there – the area is quite built up now – for me, it was more of a pilgrimage. Hudson was way ahead of his time; he also believed in the mystical benefits of communing with nature, as he explained in his stirring story The Ombú:
‘The free life of the pampas grew unspeakably dear to me. I could understand why those who have once tasted it are never satisfied with any other. The artificial luxuries of cities, the excitement of politics, the delights of travel – what are these in comparison with it?’
The house museum stood amid a cluster of mighty ombú, tree-like plants with vast tentacular branches. While its contents were meagre – a flag, a bust, a collection of books, some leaflets, a photograph or two – the setting was lovely.
I walked around the edge of the estate, listening to birdsong and even catching the distant lowing of cattle, ‘cow music’ as Hudson termed it, and was glad some civic-minded souls had protected the author’s childhood home.
The Buenos Aires suburbs can be a chaotic mess, with parks and plazas in short supply; here was a place to escape and daydream.
Thirty kilometres north of the city lay another rural retreat: the Tigre delta. To get there required either a bumpy bus ride or a smooth rail trip – I chose the latter.
Then, from the main terminal, I took a tiny, noisy launch down the delta’s brown-hued channels, passing first the town’s grand rowing clubs, built in the early 20th century in Tudor and Italianate styles, and then its newer holiday retreats and small hotels, drifting past the shacks of the less well-heeled in between.
Boats moored in Tigre (Dreamstime)
Aires, the delta has no cars, no fumes, no artificial lights after dark. My hotel, on a small island less than half an hour from Tigre, was a sort of spa, but I spent most of my time there wandering its margins.
I saw woodpeckers, ovenbirds, several types of heron and thrush. The turbid water recalled memories of the Amazon and Pantanal, and the delta could easily have been a nature reserve once upon a time; it’s part of the same corridor that connects the Reserva Ecológica to Brazil and gets its name from the jaguars that were once found hereabouts.
In the late afternoon, I hired a kayak and paddled slowly among the waders, stopping to chat to two men fishing for catfish. As the sun slipped, the trees and lily pads started to glow.
I watched a plane go overhead, looking down on me as I had gazed down on the city a week earlier. I was glad I’d taken time on this trip to see Buenos Aires’ green fringes and wilder edges, to find some peace amid the hubbub.
But going green in BA isn’t just about slowing down. It has a political edge too. This is a city still in thrall to the car, with a traditional (and macho) male population that still feels the need to drive fast, ignore pedestrians and make as much noise as possible.
Being a walker, birder, cyclist, pedestrian or canoeist is akin to being a kind of rebel. This is not an exaggeration. Horacio had earlier described himself as an eco-guerrilla, and said he and a friend went round the city planting hundreds of trees after dark. Why not? Whose land was it anyway?
It’s easy to forget what lies beneath the city’s asphalt and concrete. But the sky is, at least, always there.
On my last morning I woke up in my Palermo hotel and opened the balcony window. I heard a kiskadee in the treetops somewhere nearby. “Benteveo. Benteveo (I see you well. I see you well).”
I may not have been able to see the bird but I certainly heard its call – untamed by the surrounding civilisation – loud and clear.
The author travelled with Journey Latin America on a seven-night tripin Argentina, staying four nights in Buenos Aires, one night in Tigre, and two nights at an estancia in San Antonio de Areco.
Main image: Hummingbird (Dreamstime)