Saturday, 01/12/2001
Buenos Aires, Argentina -- City Tour and Zoo

We arrived in Buenos Aires late on Friday night and quickly settled into our hotel room at the Sheraton Towers downtown. While we had a wonderful view of the waterfront and the city itself, this hotel, like the one we stayed at in Santiago, was testament to the modern business traveler: it was just like any other high rise hotel in any nameless big city, and with no character to speak of. We had two nights and two days here in the city, but we opted out of the very touristy dinner trip that was included in our package and ate at a nearby local seafood restaurant on our own, and had a much better dining experience than those who went the tour route.

The next morning, however, we took advantage of the first part of the city tour that was included in our booked trip. While most of the Audubon members whom with we were traveling drove over to a nearby marsh area, we climbed aboard a tour bus and drove around various parts of downtown Buenos Aires,
with our guide for the day providing a non stop stream of interesting (and some not so) facts about the city and Argentina. Buenos Aires is a large city, but it is much more like a European city than a South American city. Many of the views down the the boulevards and streets reminded me of my time in Paris, but there were certain parts of the city that were quite unique, and lent the place an air of the remote and exotic. We stopped in the core of downtown and walked around the plaza, strolled through a grand Catholic Cathedral, and sat on benches and watched the locals watch us, or more likely, ignore us as they went about their lives.

The economy of Argentina was suffering terribly when we visited, and radical plans had been made and actions taken to try and get the economy back on track, but all had failed, and inflation was at an all time high. Most people preferred to be paid in foreign currency -- preferably US dollars, and almost every business, no matter how large or how small, had prices is US dollars, sometimes even to the exclusion of their own currency, which was rapidly approaching no value at all. Credit cards were not welcome, even in the big international hotels, which struck us as odd, but as it turned out the entire country's banking system was on the verge of collapse, making it nearly impossible for merchants to receive payments from the credit card companies. Buenos Aires was an expensive city even for the locals, and many were struggling to get by, but everywhere we went we saw enthusiastic people enjoying their beautiful city.

Our next stop was an area called the Caminito in the La Boca district, a colorful and lively part of town where artisans flourished, and tourists flocked, but none the less, the Caminito is not to be missed! This former low income area became a colorful landmark when the people who lived here brought home the remains of discarded cans of paint. Few of the colors of the used paint matched, and so each house took on a patchwork appearance as the owners made use of the colors available. Each house was also made from a collection of different materials: corrugated metal for one wall, wood planks for another, and stucco for yet another. Surprisingly the overall result as this cacophony of texture and color mixed and spread was pleasing, and people from all over the city began to visit to see the sight. Soon tourists were making the trek to this area, and musicians, artists, shop and restaurant owners followed, making the place an ongoing fiesta for all the senses.

And yet the arrival of relative prosperity did not displace most of the original inhabitants, and so you find a glorious mix of residents going about their every day business the same as before the area became a tourist highlight, the locals who have set up businesses because of the tourist trade, and of course the tourists, who no doubt provide the major influx of income to the neighborhood.

We spent over an hour walking along the cobbled stones, enjoying the performance artists posing about the various landmarks, and just drinking in the atmosphere. Too soon we had to board our bus and head for our next destination, which would mercifully be where Elayne and I (and our friends Roberta and Justine) would jump ship and break out into the city on our own.

The Cementerio de la Recoleta was as alive as any other part of the city, with restaurants, shops, parks and plazas clustered over the entire area, and the locals (and ubiquitous tourists) enjoying every square inch of it. The cemetery is where the famous Eva Paron (Evita) was laid to rest, but this necropolis really is in all appearances a city of the dead, with houses, streets and temples spread out like much like any city of the living.

We wandered among the crypts, enjoying the wildly diverse themes and designs of each structure and tomb, and listening as our guide explained how entire families found their final resting places within. Many crypts had glass enclosure, and within each were the actually bones of the deceased, on display for all to see. Apparently the most recent inhabitant of such tombs are given this place of honor, while the previous occupant is displaced into the hidden reaches of the structure -- typically down a narrow and twisty stone stairway leading below ground. While many of the crypts were reasonably well maintained and obviously recently visited by (still living) family members, others were neglected and in various states of disrepair.

After touring the cemetery Justine, Roberta, Elayne and I enjoyed lunch in a nearby outdoor bistro beneath the spreading branches of an enormous tree. Tropical birds called out and flighted down from overhead as we indulged in various local delicacies. We watched the locals, either dining with us, or relaxing in the surrounding plaza as we finished our lunch and made ready to head off into the city on our own.

The Buenos Aires Zoo is located in the heart of the city, with surrounding high rise apartment buildings peering over the tall majestic trees that border the park. While obviously an old zoo with old style iron bar and wire cages and small pen enclosures, it was obvious that attempts were being made, despite limited funds, to improve the animal holding areas while at the same time offering a more interactive experience for guests. Grand old domed Romanesque buildings vied with modern designs to give the zoo a very retro look and feel. We spent a lovely afternoon strolling along the walkways, and through the different exhibits, looking at the mostly native collection of animals.

We had walked nearly all of the way through the zoo, and were preparing to leave through the opposite gate from where we entered when we caught wind of a familiar scent: the smell of a mustelid! We eagerly walked down a narrow walkway, which led to a large circular cage partitioned into several wedge shaped holding areas. Within each of these exhibits was a different member of the weasel family. A skunk was sleeping in one, while nearby a very friendly grison came up and asked for some attention. In between these two wild animals (although the grison was tame enough to have been someone's pet) was a domestic ferret! The ferret woke up and realized someone was spending a lot of time looking at him, and he too came over to the fencing, begging for some personal interaction. It had been over two weeks since we had last seen our own ferrets, and we wanted so bad to pick this guy up and hold him for the rest of the day, but the cage prevented anything more than verbal encouragement, and after a while this sable boy curled up in his food dish (just like a ferret!) and went to sleep. Reluctantly we left the zoo and began to walk back to our hotel several miles away.

On our way back we walked through the Parque Las Heras, an old public park that had been laid out as a formal garden that had long since fallen into ruin, but still managed to maintain a pleasant atmosphere. As we approached the eastern end of the park, where the remains of long, low green houses clustered together, we began to see cats. Lots and lots of cats. Quite literally thousands of cats. Cats sleeping, playing, begging, and of course breeding like bunnies and making even more cats. The smell in this corner of the park was terrific, but locals braved the strong smell of cat urine to bring bags of food to feed the feline horde. We realized just how far most cities in the US had come with feral cat spay and neuter programs by seeing this sad state of feline over population.


Sunday, 01/13/2001
Buenos Aires, Argentina -- Birding

We awoke early to join the Audubon group for a day of birding in the area to the north of Buenos Aires. Unlike the previous day, Sunday was dim, grey and overcast, which made for less than ideal bird spotting (and worse still for photography). This was our last real day on the trip, because that night we would fly back to Miami, and so we were determined to eke out every possible experience in the countryside. We did manage to see several new species as we patiently drove down one gravel road after another, and we spent an enjoyable lunch at a wildlife interpretive center on our way back into town, but the trip was winding down.

I was ready to spend the rest of the day enjoying the comforts of our hotel room -- with Internet access (what a geek) -- while Elayne hiked over to a nearby wild life sanctuary (visible from our hotel) to do some additional birding. While I was researching skunk rescue organizations for, checking up on email, and looking at live images from the Cascade Ferret Network web-cam that is set up in our house, Elayne was spotting new species to add to her life list. Elayne then walked about the plaza near the hotel for one last look at Buenos Aires, and then it was time to leave.

As uneventful as the flight down, the return flight to Miami passed in a night of little rest and less comfort. We managed to secure two seats on an earlier return flight home, but at the gate we discovered there was actually only one seat available, and so Elayne took the earlier flight, which gave me an opportunity to have lunch with my sister Lois before I too returned to Portland.


Return to Chapter 9 Proceed to the Epilogue