When I first arrived in Buenos Aires 18 years ago, Puerto Madero was a dockside, wasteland whose sole point of interest was a huge nightclub in the shape of the Sydney Opera House. You could disco in the smoked filled interiors or salsa outside on the huge decks till breakfast, with no risk of disturbing any neighbours. There weren’t any. The port was too small to accommodate commercial shipping and no one knew what to do with it.
Shortly after the revival started. Ambitious, privately financed plans turned the area into a well planned, secure, shiny-towered facility for rich Argentines and foreign buyers. Residential developments with pools, gyms and tennis courts surrounded by quiet roads, public gardens and benefitting from a high visibility and uncorrupted police force (the Naval police retain the contract), conspired to drive the prices to the highest per square meter in BA. I was lucky enough to be lent the 43rd floor of one such tower for a year and (even on an overcast day) the view over the city was impressive.
If high flying dockside development is your thing, Puerto Madero with its eye catching bridge (La Puente de la Mujer) and waterside promenades, long row of restaurants (ranging from tourist rip-off to top quality) and its five star hotels, can measure up to the best in the world. And that is the problem. It could be anywhere in the world. And while improving, the lack of local charm and the sterility that accompanies all this clean lined urban regeneration, combined with low owner-occupation rates, make it frankly rather dull. At least until the weekend starts, the sun comes out and hoardes of porteños invade the area on foot, bike, blades and skateboards to reclaim it as their own. Then the historic walkway of the Coastanera Sur, which divides this island enclave from the flanking nature reserve, turns into a scruffy chaotic festival of music, dance and cheap food.
There are some places you go to in BA to see planned for entertainment. There are others you go to when you don’t feel like planning but wish to be entertained. For the latter Puerto Madero offers a perfect day out and here are a few of my suggestions;
For a cultural start, make a pre-lunch visit to one of the finest private collections of Argentine art, that of recently deceased Amalita, “La dama del cemento,” (the woman of cement – she owned the Lomo Negra cement business). Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat’s excellent museum space was constructed specifically to house her art and the particular architecture is designed to make best use of natural light. It opens at midday and costs 35 pesos.
Hungry? If you are feeling “cheto” (a somewhat derogatory term for BA’s new moneyed class) or simply in need of an illusive fish dish, start with lunch at Marcelo. A big family style Italian, its efficient, bow-tied waiters serve up pricey pastas (to share), wood fired pizzas and a range of traditional specialities. I’ve eaten here a hundred times and never been disappointed, but for a light lunch ask for this;
A warm seafood salad, freshly dressed on a bed of crisp endives, heavy on the pulpo please! And with a good chardonnay by the glass to match.
If you are not flush with cash or simply feel in the mood to eat “como la gente”, walk down to the end of Azucenar Villaflor (one of PM’s principal streets), until you get to this;
My friends Jorge and Aidé have literally built La Doña from scratch and it is undoubtedly cobbled together (“atado con alambre” as they say here) from bits of scrap. However, in amongst the numerous puestos selling choripan (chorizo sausage sandwhich) or bondiola (grilled pork butt), their offering is unique. In fact, the plate-sized, charcoal-grilled, wheat tortillas that they cut laterally and stuff with a variety of fillings, are so good that they have recently been invited to Milan to attend the first Streetfood Expo and attend the screening of the related documentary in which they feature, all expenses paid. See the trailer here;
(http://www.streetfoodglobalnetwork.net/pages/multimedia). I always could spot culinary talent!!
While food hygiene worries may have the more sensitive amongst you already on edge, their product is always fresh and perfectly cooked. I’ve eaten there at least 50 times with never a twinge. Of course getting the perfect balance of filling may be a challenge especially if your Spanish isn’t up to scratch. One option is to ask for a tortilla “como come Emilio, el ingles” (a tortilla like Miles, the English guy eats). They will know. You will be presented with a crisp disk filled with creamy cheese, griddled chicken, salami, marinated aubergines and pickled chillies. Don’t let them add a fried egg! And one tortilla (at around 25 pesos) easily feeds two people.
Replete, it is time to move on to the entertainment. By mid afternoon this riverside strip is fully alive and every 200 yards there is something new to see or do. All activities are free, other than the passing round of the occasional hat (“la gorra”). The following is the photographic record of just one afternoon;
Maybe you could work off a few calories dancing salsa as the local dance school takes it to the street?
Or get down to a Colombian Band?
Relax to the jazz?
Get complicated with Zouk!
Though some of these guys are seriously good (the guy in the mask is a well known dancer who suffered serious burns).
And don’t forget the Rock and Roll!!
Did I hear you say ROCK AND ROLL????
Peckish? Get Coco to make you some fresh churros.
With beer in mind you could take a tour of the famous Cerviceria Munich, now a museum but apparently the first building in BA that had draught beer piped from its cellars to all its various rooms and a fine example of the many beer houses that used to line this stretch of the Costanera, where the locals used to come to bathe. Or maybe partake of the real thing outside one of the recently restored ones! However, If you feel like going more upmarket, treat yourself to an early evening drink at the poolside bar of the wonderfully kitsch Faena Hotel and Universe (Alan Faena clearly knows what he wants to be the master of) and play guess the nationality to see if your Latam peoplewatching skills are fine tuned. Don’t make the mistake of eating there though, the quality is phenomenally variable. Do however check if the have any bands playing in the Library Bar later in the week, as you can still catch full-on Rock and Roll in an intimate setting here. If Pablo Bañares or the dreadfully named but very good “Oh Baby” are scheduled, pencil in that date!
So, not an exhaustive review of the delights of Puerto Madero. The sporty amongst you could hire a bike to peddle round the nature reserve. The arty may wish to peek into the Faena Arts Center (amazing restored port building, relentlessly modern exhibitions). The lucky may catch one of the big free evening concerts in the amphitheatre. Some may even wish to shop, but here I am not qualified to advise.
What I do know is if you want to have fun with real porteños of every class and type, get yourself down there on a sunny weekend and you will find something for everyone!