There comes a time in everyone’s visit to Buenos Aires where they would turn to me and say: “Daniel, you basically live in New York/Paris/Barcelona/Madrid”. And after three days of touring downtown (which often doubles for the Big Apple in advertisements) and the chichi districts of Palermo and Recoleta, that sentiment is understandable: parts of Buenos Aires are very upmarket. It is at this point that I would buy them a subte coin, descend down to the depths of the blue line and take them to Retiro. (I also wish I could condemn every travel writer who has ever described Buenos Aires as ‘the Paris of the South’ to a two week stay in Retiro).
Retiro, you see, is an area in Buenos Aires that is truly, unmistakably, and joyfully South American. And I love it. In fact, I enjoy it so much I would often go down to the food stalls, order the cheapest milanesa in the country, a large Quilmes and revel in being in South America. Argentines thought I was two chorizos short of an asado.
The name Retiro means ‘the Retreat’, the name of a country house owned by a Spanish governor in the late 17th century. Today, Retiro is, for most people, synonymous with two train stations and the principal bus station in Buenos Aires. Mitre is a British-built station (look out for plaques of the British material suppliers) dating back to 1915 and was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace. Between the crowds you can glimpse its former glory. Every morning millions of commuters from the wealthy northern suburbs descend on Retiro.
The sheer quantity of people passing through has built a thriving economy around the stations. It is a hugger-mugger of stalls selling just about every counterfeit good you could imagine. Radios, football shirts, magazines, books, toys, clothing, and well, just about everything. Cumbia blasts out in a discordant cacophony. The covered food stalls are filled with workers chomping on a one peso choripan, knocking back their second bottle of Brahma (that little bit cheaper than Quilmes), and the baskets are filled with pastries and breads from around Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. I would go alone just to buy a bag of warm chipás – delicious cheese snacks made from manioc flour. Retiro and Once (another area rich with Argentines from other provinces) are the only places to buy them. Hawkers hawk and buskers busk. It’s a thrillingly vibrant part of Buenos Aires, and a great place to experience some true Argentina culture.
Estacion Retiro – Photo by Jorge Gobbi on Flickr
Several readers who know Retiro by now will be pointing out that I’m picking out the wrong part of the area known as Retiro. Some will say it’s dirty (it is), some will say it’s dangerous (it’s not too bad, but keep an eye on your bags and pockets and stay away from anywhere the other side of Retiro bus station). They’ll be saying, “What about the sights of Retiro?” So, yes, here they are:
This park provides a leafy buffer between Recoleta and downtown and the area around Retiro railway station. The park at the top and the well-kept hillside descending towards the clock tower are popular with mate drinkers and lovers (PDA is not a consideration in Buenos Aires).
Porteños like to point out the story of how it was called Torre de los Ingleses, but was renamed Torre Monumental after the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. The Plaza Británica was also renamed Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina. It was British residents who provided the funds for the monument (apparently it’s based on Big Ben, although that seems hard to imagine). The materials were imported from Britain and it’s adorned with the English Rose, Scottish thistle, Welsh dragon and Irish shamrock. It opened in 1916. Today, it’s the headquarters of the Museos de Buenos Aires. You can occasionally climb to the top.
Torre Monumental – Photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo on Flickr
This pedestrianised street lies partly in the official Retiro boundary. Once the place to find the most upmarket shops in the city, it’s now leather goods, souvenir stalls and an empty Harrods – the only affiliated Harrods store in the world, but its been empty since 1998. Patio Bullrich, one of the nicest malls in the city, has taken Harrods’ mantle. The Florida Garden café is notable for being the meeting place for artistic and literary giants in the 1960s.
Overlooking Plaza San Martín is the Circulo Militar Argentino, the home of the Museo de Armas de la Nación, which has a good collections of uniforms and weapons dating back to the 12th century.
Amidst the chaos of Retiro, this oasis of calm is a whitewashed baroque building with an incongruous collection of paintings and religious objects. There are often classical music recitals, but it’s a nice place to go and seek quiet.
So, yes, there is more to Retiro than just the stalls outside the train stations. But for a glimpse into the real Argentina – and I’m aware I may be alone in thinking this – Retiro provides a shortcut into the loud, swirling chaos that is much of South America – and the reason we love it.
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