Sunday, 7 January 2018

Bar Los Laureles - Golden Age of tango

Have you been to Bar Los Laureles?

Deep in Barracas, southern barrio of Buenos Aires, there is a cafe. It dates back to 1893 when it was a hotbed of socialism and tango. Later in 1940 Jose Lomio, the famous tango singer known popularly as ‘Angel Vargas’ started to sing at the bar, and since then singers have come from across the southern barrios of Buenos Aires to sing here.

It is Friday night - open mic night one might call it in London or New York. But the very term seems to steal the true-tango-authenticity of Fridays at Los Laureles. The songs are tango - of the Golden Age singers Carlos Gardel, Alberto Moran, Angel Vargas, Armando Laborde, Virginia Luque, Pepita Avellaneda. They are tango at its very best, some of the resident and visiting singers having sung for a lifetime, as professionals and enormously talented social singers.

We meet with Moneypenny and Damian to board colectivo 24 to Herrera, then on foot to Av Gral Iriarte 2290 Barracas. Stephanie and Moneypenny sit towards the front of the bus, whilst Damian and I stand by the wide open window that allows in cooling air. Green traffic lights are in our favour, and number 24 careers through the intersections, the windows of closing shops and opening cafés flashing past in a blur. 

Av Gral Iriarte is a suburban boulevard which we recognise, in contrast to the rest of Barracas, by the long slim garden that divides the road. Just before the railway bridge on the left is ‘Los Laureles’. Tables have been gathered close below the street windows, and already locals sit there with copas de vino, beers and empanadas. Nearby, a mechanic and its owner appear to dismantle a car’s carburetor and momentarily Los Laureles is lit blue by the flashing lights of a passing police car. 


The bar’s owner takes us to our table by the dance floor. Finding that we were tangueros, this place was reserved specially for us. To our left shellac resin and vinyl spins on the turntable of the analogue radiogram. Its Pugliese, his plump face peering out at the room from an old crumpled photograph on the album’s cover. We have come early for Yuyu Herrera’s tango class, but we need not have rushed - here in Barracas we are definitely on ‘Argentine time’. 

With the change of mood to Osvaldo Fresedo, Moneypenny accepts my cabeceo  and we take to the pista. Odd tables are now occupied, yet we dance alone. ‘Los Laureles’ is not a place for show. Here, in the traditions of the barrio, tango is totally grounded, feet barely leave the floor, movement is unhurried, continuous and seamless. We dance in close embrace, receiving approving smiles from faces by the floor and beyond the windows in the street. Shortly, we are joined on the floor by Stephanie and Damian and the evening has started.

Within three tandas a small, fiery woman bearing a shock of curly black hair appears in the room. In a place that has seen no sudden movement since the 1950’s, her arrival amounts almost to consternation. The music switches to a Canaro beat, and she corralsher students into groups of ‘beginners’ - and ‘the rest’. Yuyu darts to a window to repel staring chicos with the sweep of her arm; then as if by magic, she sets the beginners to walk - the most important skill of the tanguero - and we (the rest) are invited to embrace. Argentine tango is a dance that requires contact, a proximity so close that the follower can understand the lead from the partner’s breath and torso. 

Stephanie and I hold each other in the perfect embrace before moving to the next partner and a new embrace. Here in Buenos Aires, it is often visitors that have an issue with the embrace; Portenos simply relax into it. After all, it is part of the culture. If one wants to learn Argentine tango and become truly integrated as a tanguero here, you simply have to release any aversion to hugs and rotation of partners.

Before Yuyu takes us all onto the giro (the tango turn) she admonishes a couple for talking and lines up her students in a column, as if for a Greek Sirtos; but these steps are those of the turning giro. Within seconds we are all proficient - including the new beginners. Then it is the moment for, two, three-four, five. Yes, we have got it. And the class finishes with applause. 


I need not take you, my reader, through the menu, the taste of the Malbec, nor the finale of fabulous budin de pan with dulce de leche and cream. In truth, one does not visit ‘Los Laureles’ for gastronomic delight. We are here for tango. And so it is now that a small, compact man in a black pinstripe suit and shiny shoes seizes the microphone. 

You must understand that everything about ‘Los Laureles’ appears in time-lapse, so even the microphone dates to the 1950’s, it’s platted cord extending from the radiogram plug. In his hand is a single sheet of paper bearing names in a neat hand - those who are to be called to perform. At this moment, we are transported back to the 1930’s and 40’s as one-by-one traditional silver tango singers, and young handsome men with slicked back jet-black ponytails arrive to sing their favourite songs. A lone guitar player sits to one side, the warmth of his accompaniment visceral in quick moving fingers on the fret. 

Just like the projected images of old film that flicker on one wall, the evening turns sepia; time slows to walking pace; a little shudder of a breeze moves dropped blossom from branches in the boulevard; yet another police car sales past - quietly as if not wishing to break the spell. Small groups of local men and women occupy outside tables to enjoy both song and night air. I feel that time is rolled back, and with it, I sway like a seaweed frond in a moonlit swell. Time now has no significance or meaning.


We dance, just the odd couple of dancers to accompany the singers, our movement directed by their orchestration; we express in dance what they sing. I feel a touch to my arm and turn. A young man stands before me and speaks in Castillano. Will I dance a tango with his mother? She has not danced since his father died, and apparently I remind her of him. She is tiny, but in tango this matters not. As we dance she comes alive with memories,  fitting for a night at Bar Los Laureles. Her face is wreathed in smiles as I take her back to her seat and give her son a hug. The pinstripe man reaches the end of his list,  and we feel a sense of loss. It is as if another century is stealing back its place. 

Outside, a taxi waits, it's meter ticking. We board and speed through Barracas streets, now deserted and in shadow from the moon. Then there is the moment that we cross 9 de Julio, the road that divides the city. This tells that we are nearly home. Bar Los Laureles seems a distant dream, but most definitely one we shall remember. 

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Maldita Milonga with Lucia y Gerry

It is Wednesday night. For those living in, or visiting San Telmo, this is the night for Maldita Milonga at Peru 571. 

Dressed casually, Moneypenny arrives promptly at 2230 hrs. Today temperatures have reached the mid 30’s and it is still warm from a day of uninterrupted sunshine. Helpfully, a Buenos Aires breeze whips lazy pools of daytime air and spins them into the darkness.

Stephanie and I join Moneypenny on the stairs to descend to Defensa, and then to wind our way through the San Telmo streets, passing cafés, restaurants and bars to which the early night revellers have repaired. There is a softness about the evening. San Telmo is unhurried. Few cars pass, here a taxi sails by looking for a fare, now colectivo 24, then a lone cartonero pushing his trolley of boxes. We walk in silence, soaking up the evening, from an open doorway hearing the sound of jazz, voices laughing, glasses chinking. A jacaranda tree, now almost devoid of purple flowers, is in full leaf swaying gently to what appears to be the same tune.

Maldita Milonga is one of those ‘must-do’s for visitors to Buenos Aires. It is a milonga with a difference: that difference being El Afronte - a very different tango orchestra. Those of my regular readers will recall my blog from November 2015 in which I recorded Sara’s last tanda in Buenos Aires. It was here at Maldita that Sara experienced the full energy of a tango band for the first, and the last time. Her final Facebook post read, “We sat directly in front of four passionate, highly energetic and totally absorbed bandoneon players. I felt as if my whole body was electrified, especially when they played their final Pugliese track, La Yumba! The effects of the powerful live music felt indescribably healing”.

Tonight we are meeting with friends at Maldita. Friendship is a privilege, and few come more handsomely than Lucia and Gerry  They are arguably Buenos Aires’s most authentic tango teachers and delightful people. As tango’s Golden Age came to an end, tango was forced into concealed recesses of ‘underground’ milongas by governments that feared public meetings of any kind. The famous milonguero Oscar Casas managed to collect the reminiscences of old milongueros (teenagers in the late 1940’s and 1950’s), and his set of lunch-time video recordings captured their stories about tango. 

If you go to 6.15 in the Almuerzo Milonguero Part 4 video you will hear reference to ‘La Flaca Lucia’. This is Lucia Seva - who became their very favorite milonguera. Alito says, “She lives and feels the moment” Neli replies, “Yes, that is a milonguera!” What better reason could there be to learn from the only living link that carries the traditions between then and now? 

These days, whilst coaching more experienced tangueros in the ‘milonguero style’, Lucia and Gerry also successfully steer non-dancers and new tangueros on their tango journey to tango competence. As part of the experience, they escort their students to a variety of authentic milongas, of which Maldita is one. 

We join Lucia y Gerry and their students at the table marked ‘Reservado Lucia’ - which is all that is needed in San Telmo. Some students have come straight from their tango lessons in Balcarce. New dancers will be taken to the centre of the pista to get their first feel of a milonga; the more experienced tangueros will be introduced to some of the lesser-known codigos. 

I receive a hug from Gerry, who I first met in 2007 on my extended visit to Buenos Aires. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the tango orchestras, and one of the larger collections of popular and obscure tangos. Chatting to Gerry takes one back to the 1920’s to1940’s - the golden era of tango music, when orchestras toured the regular salons in the city, and milongueros only ever danced to live music.

Shortly, Gerry and Lucia take to the floor surrounded by coloured marker lights. From a dark corner, Gerry checks with a following tanguero, and receiving a nod of approval to enter the pista. Theirs is not the stage-effect tango of performances; it is keyed to the floor, in close embrace, totally connected and seamless. No show is necessary. The joy of watching is to see tango as it was always danced - and within the milonga, always should be. Within moments, they slip from view. We crane our necks to catch further glimpses, but they have gone, swallowed up by a turning tanda. 

It is now 11pm and movement on the stage behind us foretells the arrival of the orchestra. A tanda finishes; suddenly there is darkness. I count the seconds, then the crash. Lights burst into a host of colours - bright intense, and sallow dark. The shadows are ripped away and there is the orchestra - tonight eight performers, fronted by two bandoneons, with three violins/violas, cello, double bass and piano. Within four more seconds the singer Marco appears. He has sung with the orchestra for over a decade and is an integral part of their sound. 

El Afronte are not for the faint-hearted. Their sound is magnificently aggressive. Each instrument takes its share of percussion, so that their songs pulse with primeval energy. We feel the reverberation through the floor and it rises almost to the chest. Anything that will resonate does so. The bandoneons grind their way, and violins chase to catch up. At the end of the first song dancers take to the floor. Theirs is a different tango - one that expresses angst, sorrow, joy and decision. 


With an emphasis on Pugliese style, this orchestra is not the easiest to mark. Inexperienced dancers find themselves beached during changes of rhythm - or those moments when the music moves from bright-light to dark-obscure. Tango music has always had this quality, but El Afronte magnify the contrast to a point that requires total dance-absorption-awareness. Those that dance well to the performance are those experienced in the dramatic art of tango; accompanied by those who cannot spell the word ‘disinhibition’.  

Stephanie and I watch; but no El Afronte performance would be complete without dancing a tango. We select a quieter song that offers less drama and feel our way out onto the pista. At this moment we sense that we have truly arrived in Buenos Aires. Laura, Maldita’s organiser smiles from the shadows. We hold in close embrace. Stephanie’s Katrinski flats caress the floor. And I breathe in the moment.

We will stay until almost the last tanda played by the DJ following El Afronte’s departure. It is now 2.0 am. We reach the bottom of the staircase and the streets of San Telmo are deserted. Distant is the sound of a siren, wailing on limpid air. I link arms with Stephanie and Moneypenny as we walk the length of Peru towards Independencia and home. 

With thanks to Lucia Seva for the photos

Monday, 25 December 2017

Christmas Day in Buenos Aires

No city is ever silent. At quiet times, they sit and wait; only to burst into momentary flurries of activity at the slightest excuse. 

It’s the morning of Christmas Day in Buenos Aires. The rubbish lorry has just departed, having ground its way along Defensa, the clattering of bottles now receding into the distance. The city’s hum, always present, is this morning the white noise of air conditioners preparing for a drippingly hot day.

Last night was different. Whilst in Europe, cities go wild at New Year in the expectation that the next year will be better than the last, here in Buenos Aires it’s the arrival of Christmas that urges Portenos to ignite their celebratory firecrackers and fireworks. It starts at midnight, or minutes before for those with urging children. At first, just the occasional small flash and bang of a firecracker followed by a puff and smell of spent black powder in the air. Then the turn of the local gatherings, with dozens of fireworks lifting from the centre of each street bathing groups of neighbours in blue and silver light. Eventually, the large civic displays take to the air, and the skyline of Buenos Aires is turned from ink to glitter in a thousand explosive orbs.

The displays go on into the night. At 1245 hrs a huge display erupts from San Lorenz, one of San Telmos’ tiniest streets leading below from Defensa. As each rocket explodes another follows, and for four minutes the sky glistens with coloured sparks and showers.

Retiring from the roof, I pull the shutters to muffle the sound of distant explosions that continue across the city. Below in contrast, harmonious voices of a group of families and friends sing folklorique to the accompaniment of a guitar; and the scent of their asado lifts on a sudden breeze.

Today, it's Christmas. Sparrows chirp, and the resident green parakeets fly boisterously across the roofs. Otherwise, there is a gentleness to the start of the day. A shutter lifts, morning sun flashes on a distant window, an early morning cat sprawls out on a warm ledge. I fold the windows back, sip tea, wait for Stephanie to wake, and the day to begin.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Eve with Empanadas

The door is open at El Gauchito and Juan leans against the counter. It is like entering a very small cave, enough seats for six or seven ‘flacos’, or four to five ‘gordos’. The tiny room is festooned with photographs and newspaper clippings. Four glass shelves bear piles of freshly made empanadas - carne, pollo, jamon y queso and caprese. Behind the shelves is the counter, and rising above it, steps lead to the place where the empanadas are prepared - ‘empanada heaven’.


Every centimetre of the wall is covered and every shelf crammed. A TV flickers the news in one corner where the wall meets the ceiling. ‘Aladdin’ - alias Nachito, returns for the evening shift. His large athletic frame fills the doorway and a firm hand shoots out in greeting. “Oh, the best empanadas in Buenos Aires? - thanks for the review”. We hug too, for a handshake simply does not convey the importance of the moment. 

Within seconds, our bag of hot empanadas appears from a hand down the stairway, we pay and exit into a street still warm after a hot day, despite the evening air. Independencia is busy with office workers returning from late shopping trips and carrying small parcels. At the corner of Bolivar, seated on a small stool, a street vendor sells posies of cream gardenias from her plastic bucket. Traffic bunches at the junction before flying on to the next set of lights. 

We return to Defensa, climb the 40 or so stairs to our apartment which is now caught in silver moonlight. The rooftop table is set, the Portillo Malbec is aired, and the empanadas are laid out. 

Whilst two forks are set, there is only one way to eat an empanada. Taking a gentle, but firm hold, lift a corner to the mouth, then the bite/suck, followed by a stroke of the chin with the back of the hand to wipe away the juices. The Portillo tastes rich, peppery and full. A single string of Christmas lights twinkle and Stephanie’s eyes flash a moment of satisfaction. 

“Happy Christmas”, I say. ‘What better way to spend a Christmas Eve?”  Stephanie just smiles and lifts yet another empanada to her lips.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

It’s time to talk about Katrinski

Women, shoes and tango; three words that go together well. To these, those living in, staying at, or visiting Buenos Aires should add a fourth - ‘Katrinskis’.

I should make it clear. This blog is inspired by shoes - with no hidden deviance or incentives to hyperbole. Katrinski is just like any other bespoke shoe maker in Buenos Aires, but better. And it is her professionalism, attention to detail, line of sight, shape and form - that makes her shoes outstanding.

Stephanie and I arrive in Gallo on the 29 colectivo and walk to Katrinski’s studio via Soler. Within seconds of pushing the bell, she is there to escort us to her first floor atelier overlooking the street. Her workbench sits just inside the door. Here are her tools: leather shears, mundial tailor scissors, nickel hammers, shoe knives, lining pliers, rasps; and the skeletons of shoes - neat heels and soles awaiting leather uppers. Ranged beneath the window are finished shoes, glistening with style and sophistication. Shoe boxes containing hidden delights mount up the wall to the left.

Over to the right is the leather-trove: a cupboard containing small rolls of the finest hides, fabrics and leathers - some bright, others shimmering. They feel soft to the fingertip, with almost an elastic stretch. They smell divine.

Katrinski (Katrin Urwitz) came to Buenos Aires from Sweden just over ten years ago. Since then she has dedicated herself to making shoes for dancers - up to 8cm heels for tango, and her famous ‘Katrinski flats’ for every occasion. In a previous blog I said that no woman should be without her Katrinskis - for the open air milonga, the time after midnight when feet in heels are exhausted, or simply to walk the city streets in style. 

A first pair of Katrinskis tango shoes constitutes a rite of passage from ‘dancer’ to ‘tanguera’. Today Stephanie selects a high open heel, double cross-over strap style in embellished nude gold. The sample are so light that they seem to float in the hand. The finished shoes will be bespoke-made in three weeks.

As we leave and walk hand-in-hand to ‘La Pharmacy’ bar I boast to Stephanie, “So that’s my Christmas shopping done”, and grin with a pleasure that only us guys will understand. “Now, who’s going to buy the coffee?”

To visit Katrinski’s Facebook page click the link

Monday, 11 December 2017

International Tango Day

It is Monday 11 December, and you will immediately realise the significance - it is ‘International Tango Day’ here in Argentina and across the tango world.


Why 11 December? Well it is, of course, the birthday of Carlos Gardel, who had he survived an airplane crash in 1935, aged then 44, would have been 127 years old today. Julio De Caro, tango composer and band leader, was also born on this day in 1899. Luckier in life and death than Gardel, Caro remarried aged 60 and died at the age of 80.

For tango dancers, their legacy is about equal. Without Gardel the singer and movie actor, we may not know tango today. It was Gardel that breathed romance into the music and gave it immortality. In 1928, his sales of 70,000 records in Paris in the first 3 months of his visit, paved the way for his films ‘Cuesta abajo’ and ‘El dia que me quieras’ six years later. Through them and him tango reached an international audience of film-goers and music lovers, where it has remained since.

Isabel del Valle

 Carlos Gardel’s widowed mother, to whom he was devoted  

Romance came at a cost for Gardel. His long-term ‘lover’ Isabel (pictured with him above) was kept secret to preserve his eligibility as a heart-throb. Carlos’ actual sexuality however remained slightly opaque. Later in life he and Isabel separated: she found the love she craved; he remained single to his death.

Julio de Caro was a colossus amongst band leaders, and dancers throughout the world count him as one of their favourites. Without Caro, Argentine tango music would have lost a critical peg that changed and matured the music through the 1920’s and 30’s, and made it accessible to high society.

I am the grandchild of Caro (and maybe Gardel). You, my dear reader possibly the great-grandchild. As such, we remember both this day, and this dance. Later, as the temperature drops at dusk, the streets of San Telmo - and other barios throughout the city - will fill with tangueros. There will be music and embrace. Argentine tango, cherished daily, will receive its annual and deserved celebration.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

San Telmo Diary - the first weekend


8.30 am and sun streams through the open window onto a table covered with a white lace tablecloth and bearing Francesca’s cream teapot full of fresh tea. Someone sings below, birds chirp from the roof rails, eight parakeets squark as they fly past in formation, in the distance lorries grind away from the lights on Av Independencia.

A Saturday city. Weekends in Buenos Aires slow down from the weekday race. They have an altogether different pace. Waiters at the little cafes on Calle Defensa no longer rush from table to table, but stroll in the sunshine. The air is lighter, softer, crisper, as is our weekend mood.


This year I have brought binoculars with which I scan rooftops from the terrace. To the north maroon-red brickwork marks a monastery. Beyond, the distant towers of Puerto Madero pepper the skyline towards Retiro. East, the view is towards the classical colonnades of the university engineering faculty building. All around are roofs and terraces, some with palms, others with plant pots. Half a kilometer away an elderly woman retrieves a towel from the roof line. Four cats laze on a remote ledge. Windows glitter as morning shutters are opened. 


One tiny, white, passing cloud blows past on a light breeze. As it moves, it dissipates into the morning’s warmer air. It is time for breakfast. “Let’s head for Origen?”, suggests Stephanie. “What a good idea”, I rejoin as we head for the stairs.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

San Telmo Diary - Pesos

In Europe, shopping is but a simple swipe away. Here in Argentina cash is king. Portenos (the people of Buenos Aires) prefer US dollars to pesos, and pesos to credit, so before leaving the UK we armed ourselves with dollars for rent, a fist-full of pesos and a couple of Halifax Clarity cards, giving charge-free transactions on larger purchases.

Cash machines are ubiquitous throughout the city, but each transaction carries a toll in both charges and exchange rate; so welcome to the ‘mysterious art’ of currency exchange.

It is Wednesday - our second day in the capital, and we need to think about cash. 

In October 2012, Londoners Michael Kent and Marta Krupinska set up Azimo as a currency transfer business. Until then, currency movement was the domain of the banks who charged hefty fees and gave poor rates of exchange. Azimo’s idea was to simplify and speed up money transfers in an easy-to-understand way. Overnight, with a fingerprint and two keystrokes, pounds sterling in your bank account could become one of 80 different currencies in 190 countries. For me it meant that pesos could be collected from agency offices throughout Buenos Aires in the knowledge that 10% of Azimo profits go to charities, and each member of the Azimo team gets a monthly day off to volunteer in their local community.

Leaving the apartment I descend from roof to street level for my journey to Calle Florida and the offices of Argenper. Today is the first hot day of the year with temperatures of 27 degrees and climbing.

Defensa is already busy, and making progress along the footway is a challenge, especially where the pavement is overtaken by roadworks, or simply disappears - only to reappear in ten paces. Yesterday’s city centre demonstrations have left behind a collection of crowd barriers which line the road as I approach Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada. 

Crossing the square I enter Calle Reconquista, the place where in 1806, the Spanish immigrants of Buenos Aires gathered to swear allegiance to their cause - the removal by force of their recent British overlords, returning the Rio de la Plata to Spanish control. Today, Reconquista is the main banking area filled by clerks and cashiers dodging huge bullion waggons. 

Reaching Calle Lavalle, I turn west towards Calle Florida. This is the heart of the microcentre, where years past, cows would be driven and milked at the side of the street. Now the junction is distinctive for performances of street tango under the direction of Jose Carlos Romero Vedia and his students.

At Florida 537 I slip beneath the building into a wide entrance way and descend a stationary escalator to the lower ground level. Wide malls lead past countless units. I head for the underground garden and twin ramps leading to Argenper. Today I arrive early at 9.15 am. The door opens, but the waiting area is deserted. A sign reads ‘Cambio abierto 1000 hrs’. I approach the counter and Daniel looks up in surprise. “Why you here so soon”, he says looking at the sign, “we wait for money to come”. ‘’But ok, its you - so we see if we have enough pesos!”, he exclaims with exaggerated nods.

I tender my passport open at my tourist visa, together with a note of the Azimo transaction number and my Defensa address. 

Pending arrival of the day’s cash it is too early for the electronic counting machine drilling dozens of bank notes in seconds, so Daniel searches in his drawer, pulls out and hand counts sufficient cash to meet the exchange. Cash secreted, I bid Daniel farewell, ascend the dormant escalator and head for the street. 

So, tonight we can eat. “And maybe a glass of champagne?”, says Stephanie. 

Use my Azimo invite and get £10.00 off your first transfer.

San Telmo Diary

He looks over his glasses and directs a thumb to a screen. Fingermarks register our return visit. He smiles. Without words his eyes say ‘Welcome to Argentina’. Through the ‘nothing to declare’ channel, from the kiosk we buy a Manuel Tienda Leon coach ride from Ezeiza to Buenos Aires, and walk towards the electric doors. 

I look at Stephanie and our eyes meet. We had pictured this moment as one we would recognise: the point of transition between two worlds: leaving Europe and returning to Latin America.

There is something about the moment that is singular. Flight side is busy in a workmanlike way. It is a last refuge, where you may check your luggage, retrieve a purse of pesos or find an address. The doors slide and we pass through to the city side - a new, vibrant, pulsating Latin world of humanity. Tiers of drivers hold placards, some hastily drawn in felt-tip, others boldly announcing corporations; porters rush around with trolleys and cases; families holding flasks of mate are meeting and hugging; police stand in small clusters; voices call; a shrill whistle blows and a surge of taxis and coaches jockey for position on the grid.

Outside the terminal its hot, yet fresh. A light breeze stirs tall palms and blows fallen blooms of purple Jacaranda across the paving. We have arrived.

All vehicles arriving at Ezeiza at some stage must leave. Like other airports around the world, it is after all just a point of transition, its currency being ‘the journey’. But whilst arrival here is simple and seamless, departure is typically Argentine. 

Our coach bustles onto the exit lane. Already horns are sounding, the coach driver shouts at a taxi. Vehicles rush for the exit, each space a small war-zone. Our bulk and the telling dents to the rear off-side carry the day as queues of small cars and taxis snarl behind us. Now the breeze ruffles stretched curtains at the windows and there is a rhythmical chink from the limp workings of the speed limiter as it hangs uselessly against the bulkhead.

On the autopista and through two sets of tolls, we are now heading into the city. Alongside is our strangely familiar Buenos Aires, a city in constant flux with half-built blocks and roofs covered with water tanks and satellite discs. From the raised sections of the carriageway the city stretches interminably, dense, sprawling and compact. Millions of lives are buzzing like small electrical currents and with them, the hustle of city life. We descend from the elevated Autopista 25 de Mayo, turn east in Avenida San Juan onto Paseo Colon. Working our way through the crisis bus-lane road works, we arrive at Retiro. The coach squeezes into the narrow dog's-leg entrance to Manuel Tienda Leon coach stop where we transfer to a little grey taxi, and start our return journey to San Telmo. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

Packing for tango - Buenos Aires

This blog is a collaboration between Stephanie and me - to assemble a nearly definitive guide for those travelling to Buenos Aires to dance tango. We have approached it on the basis of longer-term stays in CABA thoughout the year, with additional advice for trips to estancias or travelling in Patagonia.

Weather is an important consideration for what you pack for your trip to Buenos Aires where temperatures vary from mid 30’s in December/January, to bitter cold wintery days in July. Between May and September it is wise to take a coat, hat, scarf and gloves, together with robust shoes. From September to the end of April simply consider something to protect the shoulders from sun, and a light jacket or a wrap for the evenings when travelling home from the milonga.

Travelling to the north, be ready for a hotter, wetter climate; and to the south - depending on distance, you may need an entirely different wardrobe. Here we have information for Buenos Aires:

Tango needs
In Buenos Aires you are coming to the centre of the tango universe where tango clothes and shoes abound, so why bring them with you? Part of the fun of staying in the city is browsing rails of tango clothes at milongas and shoe shopping. Our advice here is to pack one versatile outfit that is suitable for day or evening milongas, together with a pair of light tango trainers for classes, then treat yourself at Comme il Faut or the DNI shop. Remember, whilst tangueros dress to the nines in the USA, Europe and UK, a modest tango wardrobe is all that is required in Buenos Aires. 

For longer stays Stephanie packs some pretty, wash-and-drip-dry dresses or tango skirts, open toe tights, plus couple of pairs of tango pants, a cheap throw-away fan for milongas, and her duty-free perfume. She includes one pair of trusty worn-in tango shoes in her hand luggage should she be ‘Stranded at the Airport’.

I pack a lightweight jacket to wear at and from the milonga, teamed with a pair of loose but smart tango trousers and a cool white shirt. Like Stephanie, I slip my old tango shoes into my flight bag just in case. Once in Buenos Aires I head for my favourite shop, Aux Charpentiers to collect a couple of collarless cotton shirts and some casual pants.

Street needs
Whatever the season, Buenos Aires weather can change quickly from hot and fine to cool (or cold) and wet. Importantly, streets are busy and congested - not a place for heels, jewellery or showy clothes that announce you as a tourist target. 

We recommend that you pack for the street, for it is here that you will spend most of your time walking, exploring, meeting friends and drinking coffee at street corner cafes. The art is to combine comfort with a pinch of style. Street shoes should be robust enough to withstand heavy drenching downpours and broken pavements - but light enough to keep your feet cool on hot summer days. This means packing two pairs and checking the forecast. Team with a shirt or t-shirt and loose casual trousers for men, and lightweight wash-and-wear pants with a t- shirt or top for women. Accessorise with a little colour, or pack a change of top for the evening.

Dining out
Don’t dress up for dinner, for none of the Portenos do, and you will feel totally overdressed. What you wear during the day is sufficient for evenings out, although I recommend a jacket for men and a dress for women in the posher restaurants. Wearing shorts in the evening is not advised, instantly identifying you as a tourist. For cooler evenings or sitting under air conditioners, bring a versatile wrap for the shoulders.

The latest technology is expensive here in Argentina, so smart phones are at a premium for street thieves. If you are to pack your iphone and ipad, ensure that they remain discrete and safe.

I pack a UK extension cable with 4 x 240v and 4 x USB outlets, attached to an Argentine adapter or plug. This will give instant connectivity for charging multiple devices, toothbrushes, operating hairdryers etc., reducing the need for a fistful of adapters and searching for additional power sockets. 

Additionally I take a Zendure powerpack for remote charging,  
and a Hootoo TripMate Titan to create a safe wifi hotspot or act as a wifi repeater. If your kit uses AA or AAA batteries, pop in a lightweight charger and handful of rechargeable batteries

Those readers who have read earlier my blogs here will know that we also pack a bluetooth speaker, giving instant smartphone connectivity and great music wherever you may stay.

Once in Buenos Aires, we recommend buying a cheap mobile phone and sim card when you arrive. For just a handful of pesos, this gives you local texting and contact without the worry of a smart phone snatch. 

Travelling further afield
If you are heading for an estancia, or trekking, you must consider weight. A suitcase, ideal for Buenos Aires, becomes a liability on longer journeys. You should only pack what you know you can carry (and what you are prepared to lose), and this means compromise.
 For this we recommend a good size rucksack with separate compartments and the emphasis on layers for clothing. Ensure that you set off with strong footwear and a cool light-but-strong jacket. Remember, if you are to travel by coach, space is limited and you will get minimal help with luggage. More important, the loss of a total wardrobe will wreck your trip, so split your clothes between your pack and day sack.

Whilst in transit - or should you be staying in hostels, security may be an issue. Our advice is to be attentive and to pack accordingly. I bring a Lucky-Line keyback, Packsafe security travel net, digital padlock, remote snatch alarm, body wallet, Travel Blue wallet, false wallet, and small LED torch, providing a near-perfect lightweight kit for most eventualities. Of several day sacks, I carry a day-glow sack for outdoor milongas, enabling me to quickly identify my street shoes in the grey bag pile. 

Day selection of shirts, tee shirts, underwear, socks, trousers, shorts & street shoes
Jacket for milonga
Lightweight tango trousers
Wash and wear white shirts for milonga
Shoe horn, sweat towel, fan, wipes & hand gel, plus spray cologne for milongas 
Old trusted tango shoes
Hat and sunglasses for hot days
Hat, gloves and scarf for cold day
Folding mac and umbrella
Under-arm sling bag
Small rucksack
Day bag
Cheap waterproof watch

Day selection of street pants, underwear, light tops, street shoes and warm wrap
Two wash-and-drip-dry dresses
Two pairs of tango pants
Two tango skirts and teamed tops
Toeless tights
Old trusted tango shoes
Fan, wipes & hand gel, perfume for milongas
Hat and sunglasses for hot days
Hat, gloves and scarf for cold days
Folding mac and umbrella
Tiny front carrying shoulder-strap bag
Transparent rucksack for milongas
Waterproof watch
Favourite cosmetics and toiletries

Small first aid kit, including antiseptic cream, eye bath, paracetamol and indigestion tablets
Sewing kit and travel scissors
Incognito mosquito repellant spray and sticks
Extension cable and adapters
Battery pack for remote charging, battery charger and rechargeables
Travel binoculars and camera  (optional)
Keyback, security travel net, digital padlock, remote snatch alarm, body wallet, security purse, false wallet, key fob and small torch

For the FLIGHT BAG include:
Emergency clothes (should your suitcase be delayed)
Pesos and emergency currency
Flight socks, neck support, eye covers, ear plugs
Warm wrap
Facial mist spray
Nasal anti-cold spray
Toothbrush and paste
Zip bag with facecloth
Travel sweets
Earphones, bluetooth speaker and MP3 player or iPhone
Kindle and backup battery pack
Water flask
Passports (plus card with passport numbers and issue date)
Note with hotel/hostel/apartment address
Biro for completing landing card
Tango shoes for ‘Stranded at the Airport’

(Note: extract from Flight bag to underseat travel bag - those items needed in-filght)