Walking Ushuaia, Argentina

I have been traveling through South America for a month at the point I reach Ushuaia, Argentina.

I think I know what to expect from the entire continent, in a general way. I’ve seen beauty and been shown gracious welcome. I’ve had the humbling experience of traveling by land through many border crossings and standing in line at two of those crossings for over 6 hours. I have braved city bus systems, fallen over several sidewalk irregularities, practiced my Spanish language, eaten food that did not agree, and enjoyed many meals that did. I have done all of that and am surviving – even loving the priviledge of being able to put my feet to the ground in places many people can’t imagine ever seeing in person.

But all my experience, as well as my abiding stereotypes, gives nothing to prepare me for this small city at the edge of the world. I begin my walk at the harbour, facing the downtown area and looking up to the surrounding jagged mountains.

I walk across the street to the visitor’s center. It seems no single nationality nor one language has a lasting claim to this place. I remind myself to speak Spanish, but I lose count at nine languages that seem common: Spanish, of course, and English, also German, Mandarin, Italian, the English spoken in Australia (!I know they can say the same about American English!), at least two Eastern-European languages (I think Polish and Hungarian?) and another tongue I can’t identify at all.

Across one street is the downtown area. It seems retailers find this place especially enticing, as brand-names from all over the world have built-up a presence here in this town of a bit over 50,000 souls. Hard Rock Cafe, for heavens’ sake, is here. It is apparent to me as I step into the city center – all two-square blocks of it – that something is going on here that should remind me that it is never a good idea to walk around with my stereotypes.

Whatever my expectations were, instead, I am greeted by: Upscale mountaineering retailers, luxury leather goods, specialty yachts, space-age small planes.

But even with the connection to the world’s marketers, Ushuaia remains a part of its pristine geography.  Even during this summer walk, snow is visible on the sharp peaks surrounding the bay, signposts warn of impending bear visits, the mirrored quality of the icy water reflects puffy clean clouds, penguins live nearby.

It all leaves me a bit out-of-sorts. I walk through the downtown and out into a more residential neighborhood. It is cozier here, and I find a bench on a pie-shaped park to sit and watch pelicans on the bay. I wonder what it is that has me so befuddled. I take a walk wherever I go; today should be no different. I am here today, and tomorrow venturing by ship to Antartica, but I find that Ushuaia is pulling my attention. On the cusp of viewing the continent that so few people ever see, it is this little city that makes me stop and think.

It feels more like home than I expected to experience in a place so far away from where I live. There is a California calm here, a confident idea in the streets that no town, anywhere, does life like its done here. I sit on a suburban bench, at the extreme southern tip of my connected continent, and I feel like I am living in the middle of California Cool. I think maybe that is not such a good idea.

But then, I remind myself, Ushaia knows itself better than I do. My own California calm takes over, and I decide to just let it be. Ushuaia seems to be doing just fine defining its own character, at its own pace. I’m the one that needs an attitude adjustment – and I hope I leave my stereotypes behind as I venture farther south.

 

Please join the Monday Walk with RestlessJo and friends:

Walking Buenos Aires, Argentina

Listening to visitors pronounce ‘Buenos Aires’ is enormously entertaining. People from Britain say ‘Ahhhres’, giving the word the sophistication it deserves. People from the USA say ‘Air-rays’. It’s a simple switch for them: just adding ‘rays’ to the already familiar word ‘air’. Curiously, travelers don’t seem to confuse ‘Buenos’, but there is already enough intrigue about the city. Buenos Aires itself is even more entertaining to travelers than its name, and everyone should visit.

This is my second time in the city; the first being over 40 years ago. I don’t dance the tango, I don’t eat pondorous beef meals (though the person walking next to me might like to.) But, now as 40 years ago, I find endless ways to entertain myself. This is one city where anyone can feel like a Porteño – a resident of Buenos Aires.

Some cities are strategically breath-taking, placed in an area of great beauty, like Bogotá, Colombia. Others may be located in a convenient area, like Panamá City, Panamá. Some communities spread like wildfire, consuming geography without apparent logic, like my former hometown of Pasto, Colombia. And some cities, like Buenos Aires, plot their own thoughtful development with grace and beauty, replacing topography with a vibrant and classic style that begs people to visit and effortlessly impresses them when they do.

We arrive from Lima and I pull out our hotel information. I am not always good at selecting places to stay. We are thrifty sorts, and like to get as much for our money as we can, but while we look for safety and value, location of the hotel is always our first concern. Can we walk to the places we want to see? Are there restaurants and stores close by?

The taxi driver knew the hotel right away, without the need for an address, which is a credit to him, and gives me hope that this time, I picked well. It is a hot day in Buenos Aires, and we drive into a neighborhood with a canopy of green extending over the city streets. The taxi pulls up along a shaded sidewalk to a shiningly clean hotel with ornate stately features. Melia Recoleta Plaza. It is classically beautiful, and I decide immediately that if I only explore this one building while in Buenos Aires, the trip will have been worthwhile.

The hotel has taken over a structure that was once a rooming house where Eva Peron lived. With curving staircases, gleaming wood accents, polished marble tile floors, this place acts as a living museum. Placards placed on framed photographs tell the history of Peronista Argentina. In black-and-white, next to the period architecture of the building itself, a history lesson begins before I unpack my bags in the room.

The area of Recoleta is home to our hotel. Even if tourists didn’t need to visit Evita’s grave in La Recoleta’s cemetary, they should come to see this neighborhood. The graveyard itself is a walking history tutorial, with cultural lessons displayed on tombstones. Decorations and poetry add details. Outside the cemetary, the shaded streets and the welcome of the cafes make walking a simple pleasure here. Carrying our map, we are stopped several times by residents who offer help with directions. One recommends that we visit the artisan fair in the park. We do, and find a huge gathering of craftpersons and shoppers. We are entertained for hours. Since I have decided that visiting Buenos Aires requires more than seeing the interior of the hotel, I now wonder if I really need to leave La Recoleta. The area is peaceful and inviting, surely sufficient for any visit.

But I do explore farther. El Ateneo Grand Splendid is just outside La Recoleta. In 2019, it was named the most beautiful bookstore in the world by National Geographic. When I walk into the store from the sidewalk, I wonder about the hype surrounding this famous place. I like bookstores, and have high expectations for the well-known ones. This one opens up from a fairly normal city street. It’s fine. But number one in the world?

And then I see the interior and understand. It’s so filled with architectural beauty that it’s difficult to focus on the literary works of art. This is just one more spot in Buenos Aires that can occupy an entire visit.

Of course, there are more. The walk to a popular shopping street, Calle Florida, from our hotel is a long one. In the heat, I wonder if my insistance on walking everywhere is wise. But how else do I see the sights I want to see at the pace I want to see them? The reward is in the shops along the street and the vendors with their goods on the sidewalk. And, of course, along the way, we stop in the shaded parks near the Casa Rosada, where the city’s political history has unfolded.

Every neighborhood we pass through and each restaurant and shop we enter, we encounter friendly, helpful Porteños. When we take a short break to sit in the shade of Plaza de Mayo, twice people approach and offer help with directions and recommendations. It seems to me the people of Buenos Aires want us to visit and enjoy the city they very obviously love.

That is the lasting impression I take with me from our second visit. I can stop worrying about pronouncing the name right. The important thing to remember is that Porteños love their city. This emotion spills out to welcome visitors like myself.