A large cosmopolitan city, Buenos Aires offers a blend of European refinery and a rich history despite Argentina being a relatively young country, gaining its independence as recently as 1816. Here you will find an interesting history of civil war, dictators, coups, and occupations. Much of the country’s history revolves around Buenos Aires. This is not surprising as it is both the Capitol of Argentina and a port city.
I had an opportunity to learn a bit about the history of this modern city during a modified version of Context Travel’s 3-hour Making of Argentina walking tour. I say modified as it was customized for us and based on our time constraints. Additionally, I suspect we got into more detail about the politics of Argentina than most.
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Puerto Madero Blends the Old and New
We met our docent, Salome, in the trendy Puerto Madero area. She explained to us that this was the original port in Argentina. After the new port was built, the original ceased to function and the area fell into disrepair. In recent years, it has undergone revitalization.
You can still see evidence of the original port. Remnants of some of the cranes that once dollied up and down the steel tracks transferring cargo from ship to warehouses remain. The old industrial buildings are now multi-use spaces with retail shops, restaurants, offices, and apartments all residing under one roof. This has become a gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.
The Puente de la Mujer (Bridge of the Woman) connects the Puerto Madero with the new city. This is an affluent section popular with young business people. The area is predominantly newer apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants, and offices. In this part of the city, you will find a large protected reserve (park).
We did not get over to that part of the city as our tour concentrated on the history of Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, the region is worth noting and is a place we would explore on a repeat visit when we have a bit longer. Visiting parks is one of the things I enjoy doing when exploring a new town. Observing the activity in local parks tells you how the locals live there day to day life.
The Making of Buenos Aires
In the early history of Argentina, Puerto Madero was an important area. Argentina has liberal immigration policies and is why the city of Buenos Aires has a strong Spanish and Italian influence. Spanish is the language of Argentina. The early settlers were known as “Puertanos.” When these early European settlers arrived, they began making their homes near the port, as it was the hub of the city. From here they pushed inward and away from the port.
It is by design that Buenos Aires is sometimes referred to as the “Paris of South America.” The Argentine founders courted light-skinned Europeans of art, music, and literature to immigrate to Buenos Aires. With them, they brought, European food and culture. However, like the United States, this pushed out the indigenous people.
Because of the influx of European immigrants, Buenos Aires has a notable Old World feel. You will find this in much of the architecture, both new and old. And of course, because of its European and cultural influence, the city is known for its art, music, dance, and opera houses.
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History and Architecture
With the importance of immigration on present-day Argentina, it is only logical that our first stop in the old city was the original Immigration Office. The building is one of the few colonial-style buildings left in Buenos Aires. To show us the difference in architectural styles we walked a short distance to a newer more European-influenced Immigration Building. In the downtown area, much of the architecture, particularly government buildings, is constructed in this style.
As we moved on and into the city we stopped at the Defense Building. Naturally, the conversation turned to politics and government. We learned that Argentina had fought for centuries before gaining its independence from Spain in 1816 and becoming a Democracy only as recently as 1983.
After a few more stops, we made our way to the Casa Rosado (Pink House) and Plaza de Mayo. This is the equivalent of the White House in the U.S. or the Presidential Palace in many other countries. This is where Eva Peron would have given her speech to the masses, as seen in the film Evita. Casa Rosado was originally two buildings: The Presidential Palace and the post office. Oddly, the grander of the two was the post office. This did not sit well so the two buildings were attached to make one Palace.
The Palace overlooks the Plaza de Mayo, which is the city center. This is where the Argentine people come to protest and celebrate. This is true even today. A small group gathered, the day we were there, to protest the imprisonment of Milagro Sala, a human rights activist.
The Abuelas Movement
Probably the most fascinating part of the tour was right here in Plaza de Mayo. In the center of the square sits an obelisk, a monument to Argentina’s freedom on May 8, 1816. A paved area circles the monument. “Spokes” project from the center. The inner spokes have white headscarves painted. The paintings represent the Abuelas (Grandmother’s) Movement.
Beginning in 1976, dissenters of the dictatorship began to disappear, approximately, 30-thousand in total. The mothers and wives of the missing men, being unable to protest under the dictatorship, began to walk quietly around the monument. The younger women, many pregnant prior to their husbands’ capture were then jailed themselves. When the imprisoned women gave birth, their children were taken and “adopted” by wealthy families and couples aligned with the regime.
Years later the same women, then grandmothers, protested and became human rights activists. Their mission was to get the word out to people born between 1976 and 1983 that the people they knew as their mother and father may not be their biological parents. They have had some success in finding the children taken at that time.
Argentina’s rich and colorful history continues to unfold in its current political climate. Much like the US, the Argentine people democratically elected a wealthy businessperson, Mauricio Macri as President. As the US election of Donald Trump, this has been controversial. When I visited, he had only been president a few months, and the country was very much in a “wait and see” mindset.
Obviously, there is so much more than history and politics to discover in Buenos Aires. However, I find history to be a good way to learn about the culture of a place. This proved true on our tour with Context Travel. If you visit Buenos Aires (or any of the 30-plus cities served) I would highly recommend you consider one of the nine or more tours they offer in this fascinating city.