I wrote a couple of weeks ago of our adventures in Antarctica. Given our somewhat lukewarm reaction to this destination that sits on so many others’ bucket lists, you may wonder how we ended up there. To be honest, it wasn’t our idea. It was the desire of friends who – between the time we made our reservations and the time of our departure – had the vagaries of life intervene so decisively that they were unable to go.
Though we had been told by Grand Circle Travel, our tour company, that purchasing trip insurance would allow us to cancel the trip “even if we just changed our minds,” it turned out that little piece of verbiage was a blatant falsehood. There is a slight possibility that that canard may have colored our reaction to the rest of the trip.
But there was a saving grace, and that was, prior to boarding the ship in Tierra del Fuego, several days in Buenos Aires. Monica had always wanted to go to Buenos Aires. We had friends who’d honeymooned in Buenos Aires and loved it. Touching down in South America would represent my sixth continent, and Antarctica would be my seventh. But as Harry Anderson used to say on Night Court, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The trouble really started at our hotel, which shall remain nameless. Given the cost of our Antarctica cruise, we naturally assumed that the associated hotel prior to the voyage would be of equivalent value. Suffice to say, it was one of those places that aspired to be a five-star hotel, and claim to be a five-star hotel, but only if it was actually five stars on a scale of ten.
For instance, we had never stayed at a five-star hotel that didn’t have bellmen. Or a concierge. Or a ramp to roll luggage up. We’d never encountered a swimming pool that was too small to be a pool and too big to be a hot tub. We’d never seen a system that required you to insert your room key into a slot to get the lights and the air conditioning to work (this is apparently increasingly common, but signage indicating this requirement for visitors from countries like the U.S. that waste electricity with impunity would have been helpful).
Nor had we stayed at a hotel where no one ever picked up the telephone. Every time we had a problem, we had to get in the elevator and head downstairs. This is where a concierge really would have helped. This is not to say that the staff wasn’t helpful once you were standing face-to-face with them, but it was nonetheless disconcerting to see one staffer lift a ringing telephone and then immediately drop it back into the cradle when he was helping me.
Buenos Aires also took a little getting used to. When I’ve traveled internationally in the past, I’d been accustomed to calling the Bank of America several weeks ahead and ordering foreign currency. You can’t do that with Argentine pesos, because in addition to dealing with mysterious prosecutorial deaths and other pesky political issues, the government doesn’t seem to be able to get a handle on its currency’s volatility. You can’t change dollars into pesos until you’re actually in Argentina.
This requirement was eased by the fact that most entities that deal with tourists are happy to accept American dollars. Except when they don’t. After dealing with multiple cab drivers that accepted dollars, I felt badly for the one who didn’t, because I hadn’t exchanged any money for pesos. He finally reluctantly accepted a five dollar bill.
Now, you’d think that you’d be able to do what most people do when they need cash – visit an ATM. Too bad no one at our tour operator thought to suggest that we update our credit cards to the latest technology, which requires both a PIN and a chip to get money out of most ATMs outside the United States (the U.S. is not at the forefront of everything, it turns out). Multiple weekend visits to multiple vestibules using multiple cards all resulted in the same message: You cannot use this card in this ATM.
Buenos Aires was also incredibly humid, which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that the bodegas selling bottled water were among those merchants that refused to accept American dollars. Even the prospects of tourists melting into puddles on their doorsteps wouldn’t persuade them.
I eventually did what most people do, which is ask the front desk at the hotel for a recommendation of a black market dealer in pesos – whose exchange rate, it turns out for still murky reasons, was much better than the one I would have gotten walking into a bank. Once I had a little local currency in my wallet, I felt much better.
But on the whole, Buenos Aires was very much a mixed bag. We loved the wide streets, but we were disconcerted by the graffiti and the fact that it looked like – when it came to throwing garbage into dumpsters – people simply aimed and hoped. The result had the effect of looking like a dumpster had exploded.
We enjoyed some wonderful walking tours, led by a local woman we contacted through Vayable, a clearinghouse for such experts. We enjoyed the San Telmo street fair (see photo).
The rampant tributes to Eva Peron were slightly disconcerting. We even visited her burial site in La Recoleta, a cemetery known for its above-ground crypts. Imagine walking around New York City and seeing images of Eleanor Roosevelt everywhere you turned. Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, never had her own musical, although time will tell.
We saw a tango performance. We figured out how to use the subway. My high school Spanish came back with more accuracy than I ever would have expected. We found multiple Starbucks.
But ultimately, I have to say that the next time I have the hankering to visit a city with good food, wide boulevards, architecture derived from both French and Spanish influences, above-ground cemeteries, and sweltering humidity, I’m just going to New Orleans.