One of the best parts of traveling is learning to use local transports as a denizen; after having done that in Asia, where often I was unable even to read the signs, South America turned out being a piece of empanada. In Buenos Aires, it meant getting to know Retiro.
Retiro is located south of the exclusive Recoleta neighborhood and north of San Nicolas and is the main travel hub of Buenos Aires. Its name originates in a grand mansion that occupied what nowadays is the San Martin Park and that was called "The Retiro." Between the two world wars this was the place where immigrants arrived, the historical "Hotel de Inmigrantes;" it is now a museum of that era. The San Martin Park occupies a large area almost connecting the low parts of the neighborhood with downtown; since it is on slanted ground, it allows excellent views of Retiro. One of the most famous monuments in the area is in front of the railways terminal and resembles a miniature Big Ben; accordingly it was called "Torre de los Ingleses" (Englishmen Tower); however, since the Falkland War the name was changed to Torre Monumental.
Retiro is accessible also by "subte," the subway railways of Buenos Aires. The Line "C" terminus station – this is the line running perpendicular to all others and roughly parallel to the main 9 de Julio Avenue – can be accessed directly from the Retiro Mitre Railways Terminal. Line "E" would be connected here in the future; the planned lines "G" and "H" would also begin from here.
By far the largest single structure in the area is the Retiro Railways Terminal; behind it is the infamous "Villa 31," one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. The terminal itself consists of three structures, each one home to a different company of railways: the proper names are Retiro Mitre, Retiro Belgrano, and Retiro San Martín; the second part of the name denotes the company served in that part of the terminal. Retiro Mitre – the most impressive structure in the complex - has been declared a national monument in 1997. The impressive structure features at least one coffee shop that should not be missed; the traveler is assured to feel like in Europe of the late 19th century while sipping his espresso.
Sadly, in 1993 all the passengers’ lines were cancelled, except with the short distance one to Tigre (from where boats cross the Uruguay River to Uruguay). Since 2003 the trains to Rosario have been renewed and since 2005 to Tucuman and Cordoba. Yet, no responsible traveler would trust such an option; it is better to check out once there if there are any available trains, if not, the Retiro Bus Terminal offers better services to wherever Argentinean trains go.
The largest bus terminal in Buenos Aires is also located here, next to the railways terminal. More than forty metropolitan bus lines pass through it and it is connected practically with any city of importance in the country. Moreover, buses to Montevideo, Santiago de Chile, Asuncion del Paraguay, Porto Alegre and Sao Paulo also leave from here regularly. There is a fortnightly service to Bogota, Colombia. The huge terminal doubles as a commercial center; even barbers can be found in the building. Having used it extensively, I am happy to report that there is no need to make reservations. I always found seats even to main locations like Mendoza, Rosario and Tucuman. Argentinean buses are modern, rather expensive and most of them offer basic meals and stops from time to time. Some of them, my favorite, even feature complimentary coffee all along the trip.
The side of the neighborhood facing the river features a port. That would be of little interest for the regular traveler if the Buquebus Terminal weren’t located there. Buquebus is the name of the fast boats service connecting Buenos Aires with Montevideo. A direct trip costs well over a hundred American dollars, but the expense is justified; I found the trip comparable to the crossing of the Pearl River with Hoover Boats from Macau to Hong Kong. A way of lowering the expense is taking the Buquebus from Buenos Aires to Colonia. Colonia del Sacramento is one of the major touristic attractions in Uruguay – maybe even in South America – from there are frequent buses to Montevideo.
The simplest way of reaching Asuncion del Paraguay is through an overnight bus. Usually I’m against such direct, international lines since they tend to disconnect the traveler from the road. Yet, here it assures an amazing sunrise at the border cross. Other options would include a visit to Rosario, Argentina’s second city or a leisure trip via the watery Entre Rios.
Rosario is a big industrial city along a wide river in a very hot area; hardly an alluring stop. The city was built exclusively on the west bank of the Parana River. The eastern side is empty without houses or visible agricultural activity, the nearby city of Victoria is not visible. Apparently, the reason for that is that the river is the limit between the Santa Fe (where Rosario is) and Entre Rios (the name means "Between Rivers" referring to the Parana and Uruguay ones) provinces. Entre Rios is east of the river and very low at this part, thus the Parana eastern bank resembles a swamp; the greenery makes it difficult to delimit the river and the land. Luckily packs of what seems to be wild cows help identifying solid ground.
The point of origin of the city is Plaza 25 de Mayo, which is surrounded by the Municipality (Palacio de los Leones), the Basilica Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Central Post Office, the Decorative Art Museum and a building called La Bola de Nieve. The central plaza feels different from other similar places in other Argentinean cities since on one of its sides, next to the cathedral, the ground drops sharply towards the river. Between the Cathedral and the municipal building is Pasaje Juramento ("Oath Passage"), leading to the Flag National Park, which occupies all the way to the river.
Located between 1º de Mayo, the Paraná River, Bjda. Sargento Cabral and San Juan, this park is the main symbol of the city and is featured on the Argentinean 10 ARP note. The park honors the Argentinean flag that was created here on February 27, 1812 by General Belgrano. Strangely, the event is commemorated on June 20, duetoits inauguration on thatday of 1957. The site is on the location of a defensive post of the Argentinean army during the Argentinean Independence War. Beyond an extensive esplanade featuring an eternal flame, statues and an attractive geometrical setup, there is a tall and squarish column on the side near the river. Climbing it is possible with the help of an elevator (2 ARP fee); on its top there are four windows, each facing a different direction offering awesome views of the Parana River and the city. Right below it, the monument to the soldiers killed during the Falkland War can be seen.
Cordoba Street begins near the Flag Memorial Park, climbs toward the center, and then becomes a pedestrian walk between Plaza 25 de Mayo and Plaza Pringles. This a good place for enjoying a break at one of the stylish coffee shops. Further west along this street is the Paseo del Siglo ("Walk of the Century") featuring houses of wealthy families.
If choosing to travel through Entre Rios, then Colon is a recommended stop. It is best reached from Rosario, making thus a natural stop – though a bit too eastwards - to Asuncion. I described in the past my surprising encounter with this town, which turned out being a major resort. Despite the difficulties I described there, the sunrises by the beach are spectacular. From there, continuing northwards is a breeze of very hot air.
In the hottest month of the year, by noon, I arrived to Asuncion for the first time. As I approached downtown my excitement grew, because the place reminded me of a much loved city. A wide, lazy river delimited it on one side, the houses were low and often there were huge gaps among them. Any non-constructed patch of land seemed to have been conquered by lush, wild vegetation. Many of the people around had attractive, dark skin and slightly slanted eyes. A digital thermometer at the central plaza showed forty-four Celsius and it was horridly humid; water seemed to be the place essence.
"It is like Vientiane" I silently summarized while I left my luggage at the room that was awaiting me.