THIS IS A TRUE STORY. It is the tale of how I came to be a tour guide in one of the world’s most wonderful cities.
A few years ago I was taken down to South America by IBM to speak at a series of computer conferences. Our first stop was Buenos Aires, the wonderful capital of Argentina.
It’s a big place, with nearly 14 million people in the greater metropolitan area. That’s about one third of the Argentine population. Buenos Aires dominates the country, more than Paris does France or London does England. It is a very cosmopolitan city, with almost as many Italians as Spanish, and many immigrants from all over the world.
I arrived early in the morning on an overnight flight from Miami. I checked into my hotel and had a free day ahead of me before my colleagues arrived. I had never been there before so I thought I would do a city tour. I arranged it at the hotel desk, hopped on the minibus when it arrived, and off we went for our four hour tour of the city.
The Paris of the South
There’s a lot to see. Buenos Aries is the most visited city in South America, and I think the most beautiful. It is renowned for its European style architecture, and has been called the Paris of the South. It’s full of wide street, busy cafes, and colorful shops.
The central boulevard, the Avenida de 9 de Julio, is reputed to be the widest street in the world. In one corner there is a famous statue of Don Quixote. In the middle there is also a grand obelisk (El Obelisco), built in the 1930s and commemorating the city’s founding in the 16th century.
After driving the length of the Avenida we visited the Casa Rosada (the ‘Pink House‘), which is the presidential palace. Quite a building. We looked at Eva Peron’s tomb and the sad Malvinas Memorial to the 649 Argentinian servicemen who lost their lives in the ill-fated Falklands War in 1982. It’s a bit like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC.
The war was a disaster for Argentina. But the upside was that the ruling military junta, which had invaded the Falklands (called the Malvinas by the Argentines) to distract the populace from its disastrous rule, was thrown out on its ear. Argentina, which in the 19th century was one of the richest countries on earth, has been very poorly governed for most of the time since then. You can see its decline in the faded grandeur of much of the city.
Our tour finished in La Boca, the funky working class dockside suburb renowned for its brightly colored houses, many of them made out of corrugated iron. These buildings are one of one of the city’s most recognizable sights, made famous by thousands of paintings and photographs. La Boca is also where the tango was born. (La Boca means ‘the mouth’ in Italian – a reference to the entrance to the harbor).
On the tour I learnt how to pronounce the name of the place properly. It’s ‘Bwaynoss eye-rays’, with the stress on the first and third syllables. Say it with a slight lisp, in the Spanish fashion. Or just say the initials ‘BA’ (‘bay ah’), which is very common.
The benefits of the city tour
I usually do half day city tours when I come to a city for the first time. It’s a great way to get your bearings and compress your important sightseeing into a manageable time. Then you can go back and visit the places you liked. I’ve never been disappointed in any city tour I have taken, anywhere in the world. All the operators I have experienced have had good tours with informative commentary. In most places it’s a pretty competitive market, and they usually don’t cost too much.
That evening I took in a classical concert at the Teatro Colon – the Columbus Theater – the famous opera house modeled on La Scala in Milan, deliberately built just one foot higher and wider. It was wonderful. The theater was also a highlight of our city tour.
The IBMers flew in from the States in the evening, and next morning we all spoke at the conference that had brought us to town. We were finished by lunch, when another minibus turned up to take us to the airport. But we were not leaving until that evening. We had hours to kill. One of our group suggested we take a city tour.
But it was too late to book one. Everybody was disappointed. I had an idea. I went to the driver, showed him the map from my tour the day before, and arranged for him to go over the same route – with me as tour guide! I had only done it the day before, and I’m good at that sort of thing (IBM had after all taken me to South America for my public speaking abilities).
Everybody thought it was a great thing to do. So off we went, me on the microphone at the front of the bus. I described the sights and the stories behind them (I had a little Lonely Planet guide book). We finished up in La Boca, in a great little bar. We had a few drinks and our driver took us to Ezeiza International Airport in plenty of time. We flew off over the Andes to Santiago in Chile.
What fun! I have never been back to Buenos Aires, though I’d love to do so. It is a fabulous place.
I know. I was a tour guide there once.