tango show buenos aires

Dreams and desires in Buenos Aires

El mundo es mi suelo, el cielo mi techo, Buenos Aires donde cosecho mis anhelos y mis pasiones…

(The world is my floor, the sky my ceiling, Buenos Aires where I reap my desires and my passions…)

– Gotan Project, Mi Confesión

We landed in Buenos Aires after dark. The cab sped north towards the city centre, the cluster of lights that an hour earlier we’d craned our necks to squint at from the air, now rushing upon us. First, along the freeway, the street lamps and billboards, then a car park and an apartment block, it’s lit windows vibrant rectangles against a column of black. Then come the residential streets, cafes, bars, shops and supermarkets.

Through net curtains a television flickers while its three viewers chat animatedly over its noise. Fairy lights hang over the door of a bar outside which a girl with a camera is ordering her friends into a line. Through the darkened windows of the closed shops we make out the silhouettes of chairs, bed linen, power tools, shoes, lamps, mannequins.

A glimpse through the window of a restaurant, or bar, or kitchen, or bedroom shows glasses half full, forks mid-air, anecdotes mid-flow, confessions about to be heard and apologies just made, tears being fought back, laughter on the verge of brimming over. The city flies by in a sequence of light and dark, seen and unseen. Like frames from a movie, each scene appears frozen in time.

I love arriving in a city at night. Those snatched moments, lives lit for a fraction of a second before they disappear from my view, seem to be brimming with promise. By day a city seems ordinary, however vibrant and chaotic. Business is carried out, transactions are made, conversations and arguments are had, and the cogs of life, of industry, of society, turn.

But at night the ordinary evaporates in a gentle hum. Then, when the buildings sleep and the world exists in chiaroscuro, that’s when inspiration flickers into life, when hope hangs in the air and anything seems possible.

A new day approaches. What will tomorrow hold?

Buenos Aires sunset

I loved Buenos Aires before I even saw it. Described repetitively and unimaginatively as the Paris of South America, it seemed inevitable. A European-syle city in the heart of Latinoamérica, accessible yet alien, I knew that on a straighforward level, I could feel comfortable there.

Buenos Aires market San Telmo

Grafitti in Buenos Aires

But Buenos Aires is not Europe and it is most definitely not Paris. The grand architecture, the boulevards and plazas, the wine bars and coffee shops are reminiscent but deceptive for beneath it all burns a spirit and identity that is entirely Argentinian. Not only is Buenos Aires unlike any European city I have visited, it is unlike any South American city I have visited.

Buenos Aires architecture

San Telmo flea market

Its history is familiar enough: colonisation, international trade, the growing of power and the subsequent attempts to consolidate this power, attacks from the British and French, independence from Spain, unification, immigration on a grand scale, art, literature, theatre, music and vast economic growth. And all this before the start of the 20th century.

Buenos Aires opera house

La Boca Buenos Aires

In the last 100 years, Buenos Aires’ story has been laced with the dark thread of political conflict. Grand ideologies gave way to sinister levels of control and politicians were hailed as demi-gods even as thousands of former Nazis were escaping justice and setting up home in Argentina.

Buenos Aires is a city that was bombed by its own navy. It’s a city that watched, helpless, as thousands of people vanished, were tortured and murdered under the military junta. Now walking through the vibrant streets, lingering on street corners to chat, one cannot help but be acutely aware that only thirty years ago such liberty seemed impossible.

Palermo, Buenos Aires

La Bombonera

Even now, it’s fair to say the city’s future is not exactly certain. In the week we visited, a Jewish lawyer was found dead of a gunshot wound, just hours before he was due to present evidence against the current government’s role in covering up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre. The government claimed it was suicide.

For all its beauty, its culture, its vibrancy and its quality of life, Buenos Aires has a deeply ugly side. And that, for me, is what makes it so much more than just a tourist destination. Buenos Aires is not a fantasy. It is real, it is dark, it is complex and after the sight-seeing is done, there’s still so much more to learn, to understand.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires

La Boca Buenos Aires

La Recoleta Buenos Aires

Try as I might, I can’t shake off the feeling that I have not finished with this city.

Street art in Buenos Aires

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Fernando Botero birds

Medellin: From murder capital to tourist mecca

Mention Medellin to anyone from elsewhere in Colombia and they’ll respond with a bevy of cliches, very few of them positive.

Paisas – the word for people from Antioquia, the province whose capital is Medellin – carry their reputation before them.

They are known as shrewd businessmen who will have the shirt off your back before you know it. They are said to be proud to the point of arrogance, believing themselves a cut above the average Colombian. And they are viewed as tacky, valuing bling and money over all else.

Gaudy baseball caps in a shopping centre in Medellin

Medellin: Like Jersey Shore, only with less modest fashion

Outside Colombia, the reputation of Medellin is more one-dimensional. This was the cocaine capital of Colombia, the city ruled by drug lord Pablo Escobar and his Cartel in the 80s and 90s.

Violent wars between rival militias pre-date the Colombian cocaine trade. But it was drug money that escalated this conflict, providing the cash to buy ever more sophisticated weaponry.

As drug barons competed for turf armed with military-grade ordnance, Medellin became the most bloody city in Colombia, despite stiff competition.

By the peak of Escobar’s reign in 1991, it was the homicide capital of the world, with a murder rate of some 381 per 100,000 people.

Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar’s drug empire made him the de facto ruler of Medellin

Today it is 35th, with a more acceptable 38 murders per 100,000 people. That’s fewer than New Orleans, no great boast perhaps, but still a dramatic slide down the murder hit parade. The image introducing this blog on the homepage shows two statues by the renowned painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, born in Medellin. The original was blown apart in a bomb attack that killed 30 people in 1995. One can’t help but see the symbolism in Botero’s defiant insistence that he remake a new statue exactly as it was, next to the disfigured individual.

This is not to pretend that violence and the gang problem have gone away.

Gangsters still control what goes on in parts of the city and it remains a dangerous place to live for many. I spoke to a serving police officer at a stable for police horses. Some of their best mounts had recently been killed in ‘tiroteos’ – shootouts with local criminals.

Police horse Colombia

A mounted police officer introduces us to his trusty steed

The cocaine trade is still rife, fuelled in part by tourists keen to tick off ‘doing coke in Colombia’ from their to-do list.

But Medellin’s improvement from the dark days of Escobar and his cartel has been phenomenal. And as this article (also from the Guardian) suggests, a major victory in the battle to revive Medellin has been to  sell its resurgence to its own citizens.

The palpable belief of the locals in the renaissance of their home town is one reason why, whatever other Colombians say about Medellin, I feel so much goodwill for this city. The more they believe in the transformation, the faster it becomes reality.

It may lack the chocolate-box charm of Cartagena or the cosmopolitan sophistication of Bogota. But you cannot help but admire Medellin’s entrepreneurial never-say-die spirit.

Medellin Colombia

When the police come, this illegal gambling racket in the Parque Berrio disappears sharpish

There are practical and political reasons for this. Former president Alvaro Uribe is a controversial figure, who has been accused of having financial ties to some of Colombia’s paramilitary groups. Nonetheless, he is credited by many people with pouring sufficient money into the military to allow for a surge in tourism.

Medellin has been among the cities to benefit most. Just 20 years after Pablo Escobar’s death, tourists can even pay for a tour that includes a meeting with his brother Roberto.

At a more local level, the public works programmes started by Sergio Fajardo, the city’s mayor from 2003 to 2007, have been an important catalyst.

Sergio Fajardo

Former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo now governs the entire Antioquia province

Any visitor to Medellin can learn more about these by taking in one of the ‘free’ walking tours with Real City Tourss (there is a suggested donationn).

Our guide credited Fajardo with doing much to improve Medellin’s fortunes, an opinion backed up by other Paisas we met. Coming from a background of mathematics – rather than politics – meant that not only did Fajardo have a strong grasp on the city’s finances but he and his coterie were less prone to corruption. It was Fajardo who turned a square full of crackheads, prostitutes and criminals into the Plaza Cisneros, as good a symbol as any of Medellin’s progress.

Plaza Cisneros Medellin

These pillars, which light up at night, were built where crack dealers and prostitutes once roamed

Fajardo and his successors initiated and completed a series of incredible public works projects to help improve the lives of ordinary citizens. I won’t go into them all here but it’s well worth reading this account by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, writing in the Guardian.

With so much misery in their past, it’s no wonder that people from Medellin take pride in their city, almost to the point of arrogance.

This rebirth also means that tourists are greeted with open arms. It was here that Franki and I became friends with Ivan, an incredibly affable teacher who we met in Cartagena and who insisted on being our tour guide when we arrived in his home town.

Visitors should not be alarmed if locals gawp at them or approach and strike up conversation. For the most part, they are simply surprised and delighted to receive you in their city. Tourism remains a relatively new phenomenon, at least to the degree it exists today. To many Paisas, the influx of camera-toting gringos is evidence of how far they have come in such a short space of time.

Medellin has plenty to recommend it, such as the peaceful greenery of Parque Arvi…

Parque Arvi Medellin

Franki and Ivan enjoy the tranquil beauty of the Parque Arvi

…or the cable car you take to get there…

Medellin cable car

The cable car to Parque Arvi takes 45 minutes and gives you incredible views

…or the Parque Botero with its plumply proportioned statues by the city’s famous artist son.

Parque Botero Medellin

One of Medellin’s notorious fat cats, a sculpture by Fernando Botero

Perhaps most attractive of all though is the refusal of its people to be beaten. They have endured, through times when there was no more dangerous place to live in the world. And they have come out the other side of that troubled past looking only to the future.

No wonder they are proud.

Ometepe Island

Nicaragua: A song of water and fire

Not for nothing do they call Nicaragua the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes.

A chain of volcanoes runs down the Pacific side of the country, seven of which are active. Of the extinct ones, many have since filled up with water, creating beautiful crater lakes. The combined surfaces of Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua make up almost 10 percent of the country’s total area.

But in the limited time I spent in Nicaragua, this combination of opposing forces – water and fire – seemed to me to have a significance beyond accurately describing the local geological features.

It is, after all, a country with a coast on both the Atlantic and Pacific. On the Caribbean side, locals speak English creole. On the Pacific, surf bums and American retirees jostle for space around the crescent-shaped bay at San Juan del Sur. And all around them locals drop their S’s providing a marked change (and challenge) for Spanish-speaking tourists.

San Juan del Sur San Juan del Sur

It is a land rich in natural beauty but with acute human poverty. It is a country that, in 1980, won a UN award after managing  to bring its literacy rate up from just 50% to 78% in just six months. But it’s also a place where children walk to school through piles of rotting, burning, often toxic, garbage (and not just the ones who live on the four square mile rubbish dump, La Chureca).

It is a nation that in 2012 passed a law to formally criminalise violence against women and then a year later scaled it back after religious organisations and men’s groups claimed it was discriminatory towards men and was leading to family break-ups.

Meanwhile all I kept reading was how beautiful the country was, how it had all the draws of Costa Rica without the hefty price tag. Everywhere I looked it was being described effusively as an  “adventure destination” on account of the huge array of outdoor activities on offer. This breezy summary seemed somehow to jar with everything else I’d read or heard about the country. But just as it’s possible to visit a country as a tourist without ever scratching beneath the surface, so it is possible to get bogged down in the political or social ugliness of a place and fail to see its beauty.

Laguna ApoyoLaguna Apoyo

Much as I believe it is important to engage with the context in which you travel, I also think it’s important sometimes to let go and simply experience a place. Happily Nicaragua allows you to do both.

We didn’t initially plan on spending any great length of time in the country, barring a job I had set up in Managua. In the end we spent a week there. It wasn’t enough to do and see even half of what the country has to offer.

We did not, for example, make it to the beautiful colonial city of León, in the north. Nor did we hike its surrounding volcanoes, or have the chance to “snowboard” down them as many do at Cerro Negro. We didn’t get to surf at San Juan del Sur or go snorkelling off the Caribbean Corn Islands. But we did hang out in colonial Granada, rent quad bikes on Ometepe Island and stand beneath a 180 metre waterfall in the jungle. We swam in a volcanic lake, mountain biked to natural springs and even braved the toxic gases billowing out of the crater of Volcan Masaya in order to peer over the edge at the glowing orange lava.

Ojo de agua omepete Cooling off in the Ojo de Agua springs

But despite the easy comparisons, Nicaragua is not Costa Rica. And it is not even close to providing the kind of touristic infrastructure that would allow it to catch up with its wealthy neighbour.

Arriving in Managua around 8pm on a Friday we discovered that the public buses to Granada, just under an hour away, had stopped running for the night. Left with no choice, we took a taxi for $35 (£22).

Granada NicaraguaGranada

Based in Granada, I was able to get into Managua for work (the public bus costs around 25 cordobas or $1 each way but be warned, in rush hour it can take over two hours) and it allowed us to spend the weekend sightseeing. However, once again we discovered that the means of doing so were limited and the prices were significantly higher than we’d been used to.

Day trips, for example, are surprisingly costly. Having paid a mere £13 ($20) each for our entire day out in Semuc Champey, Guatemala, we were more than a little bit surprised when our combined visit to Laguna Apoyo and Volcan Masaya racked us up a bill of £40 ($60) apiece. And yes, technically you could take the public bus to the entrance but you would then be facing a bit of a trek as both the lake and the volcano are situated several miles in from the main road.

This is largely to do with demand. Statistically Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America but despite this it welcomed 1.2 million travellers in 2013, compared to almost 2 million in Guatemala and 2.4 million in Costa Rica. Consequently it cannot access the same economies of scale, i.e. no group discounts. When we booked the Apoyoa/Masaya tour we were the only two people on the list. The travel agent promised that the more people signed up, the cheaper it would be. No one else signed up.

Volcan MasayaVolcan Masaya

It isn’t just the organised trips either. Travelling between places was more difficult than we’d found elsewhere. Sometimes all this meant taking a public bus (or three) and what this lacked in convenience it made up for in cost. To get from Granada to Puerto San Jorge, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, we took a bus from the main bus station behind the market on Calle Atravesada. For around 30 cordobas ($1.20/£0.80) each it took us to a junction somewhere outside Rivas. Here we were herded off and onto a second bus where we paid a further 10-15 cordobas to travel the remaining ten minutes or so to the port. We spent the entire hour-long journey standing up, wedged between a backpack and man selling bags of nuts but it cost us less than a fiver.

Chicken bus

But sometimes the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason. On Ometepe – an island made up of two volcanoes, one active, one extinct, linked together in the middle of Lake Nicaragua – we were quoted £50 ($70) for a taxi to take us just a few miles from our hostel on Playa Santa Domingo to the bottom of the San Ramon waterfall trail. Aghast, we said we’d take the bus, only to be told no local bus would be passing that morning. The only other option, we were informed, was to rent a quad bike or a motorcycle for five hours at a price of around £30 ($55) plus gas.

Quad bike OmetepeFilling up the tank, Ometepe style

We allowed our arms to be twisted, assuming we were paying the price of being a captive audience. But then we saw the roads. I’ve driven on dirt roads before but this was something else: great muddy ruts, deep puddles, huge churned-up piles of rubble such as would ruin any normal car. Suddenly that £50 taxi fare seemed completely understandable.

Quad bike Ometepe Rush hour on Ometepe

It ended up being one of the best days out we had in Central America. Sometimes when plans go awry you end up having even more fun.

Nicaragua is where I learnt to expect nothing and embrace everything. We missed a ferry because we were told three different departure times by three different sources (internet, fellow travellers, locals) and had no idea who to believe. We stood at a bus stop in the midday heat only to discover the bus we’d booked had passed through two hours prior to the time indicated on our ticket. We were refused advance tickets for a bus that was “full” but when we happened to see it passing, we were able to not only get on but bag ourselves two plum seats.

In the land of lakes and volcanoes I learnt about the terrible disadvantages faced by so many but through my work I also met and spoke to the organisations working to try to change that. I saw the terrifying results of unequal access to resources but I also heard the inspiring stories of people who have overcome the odds.

I spent a morning swimming in the cool waters of Laguna Apoyo and the afternoon braving the heat at the crater of Volcan Masaya. And that’s the impression that will stay with me.

Ometepe island