The stop-over tipping point – Against the clock in Buenos Aires

 

Long haul flying can often involve multiple stops, or worst still, an unwanted airport layover. Depending on your destination or the continents you’re trying to connect, these are sometimes unavoidable – but is there a way to still win?

We all know the drill. You pour all your hard earned into the airline coffers months in advance, yet to get from point A to point B, there’s an inexplicable and annoying stop-over in point C. Usually it means getting off the plane, hanging around in a boring airport lounge with not enough chairs and crappy wi-fi for a couple of hours, before re-embarking, and fighting once again for space in the overhead compartments with those inconsiderate jerks in row 25. In some cases you will need to change flights for your onward sector, or if you’re doing a codeshare, even embark on a stress-inducing change in airlines or terminals.

Recently I had to deal with a total of eight (that’s e-i-g-h-t) flights on a return trip to South America, with all but one of the stop-overs ranging from 90 minutes, to a tantalising four hours. The names rolled off the page like stones on the classic Gringo Trail; Lima, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Cusco. The final stop-over? Seven hours and 50 minutes. As I studied my itinerary and re-read the fineprint from the various airlines involved, I started to think about the stop-over tipping point. Seven hours and fifty minutes? There obviously wouldn’t be time for any kind of social immersion, but dammit, surely this would leave enough of a gap for at least a flying visit or kitschy city tour? Armed with this new determination, I resolved that I would, at whatever the expense, find a way to squeeze some joy and maybe even an ounce of culture out of my unplanned Buenos Aires break.

The first considerations for the traveller who’s found their stop-over tipping point and decided to take the local plunge are the logistics – flight delays, customs queues, baggage issues, transport hold-ups – at any point something could go wrong and screw up the whole plan. You also need to make sure your flight rules allow you to leave the airport. This is not an automatic and requires a real fleshing out with local airline representatives and airport customs, as there’s a fair chance that neither will really know the answer. As you might need to make some arrangements in advance, it’s critical this situation is understood before you arrive, so that you can head straight for your pre-booked transport of choice. In my case, it was a personal taxi driver named Pablo. I’d already passed through Buenos Aires International a couple of weeks earlier and completed a thorough “reccy”, so I was familiar with its layout (smaller than expected), busy-ness factor (not very)  and proximity to the city (45 minutes), and was able to hire him with confidence, starting from mid-afternoon through until late evening.

Exiting the terminal at speed, Pablo and I quickly connect as I leave my luggage with the airline, and with more trust than I would usually employ in these situations, allow him to lead me straight to an ATM where I withdraw the required amount of Argentinian Pesos for us to enjoy a big afternoon and wild night. Well sort of.

“Woohoo! Vamos Pablo!” I proclaim as he zips through the airport carpark and heads for the freeway, clearly in no way unaware of our time restraints and looking forward to the challenge of showing me the best of his town post-haste.

We settle quickly into the ‘getting to know you’ phase as the suburbs whiz by, and Pablo explains a bit about his life, his family, and of course his soccer team, San Lorenzo de Almagro. By the time we approach downtown, we have exchanged enough stories about the three most important topics in Argentina – sport, love and politics – to feel comfortable about being buddies for what remains of the day and night, albeit with a firm financial arrangement in place.

Downtown/Centro

With wide boulevards and a sea of buildings, you could be forgiven for mistaking the centre of Buenos Aires for Manhattan. The spirit of Eva Peron is everywhere in this city, but most visible in the form of a massive sculpture on the side of the Building of the Ministry of Health. We stop off for photos at the 71 metre tall Obelisk of Buenos Aires, followed by the Plaza De Mayo, with the Catedral Metropolitana, and impressive Atardecer en el Congreso de la Nación Argentina (National Congress) nearby. I’m already regretting that I wasn’t able to wangle a few days or even a week here, but my decision to at least challenge life’s terms and conditions and leave the airport has been confirmed as a good one.

Monserrat/San Nicholas

A few twists and turns from Avenida 9 De Julio, the main thoroughfare that splits Buenos Aires, and we’re in a neighbourhood with a distinctive Parisian feel. The backstreets reveal cafes and bistros straight out of the third arrondissement, and the avenues boast Haussmann-inspired architecture and buildings such as the 17th century Cabildo – Buenos Aires’ oldest according to Pablo – and Palacio Barolo, the home of some 300,000 light bulbs. Pablo informs me that 100 years ago this was the tallest building in South America, and its powers of illumination allowed it to serve as a lighthouse to ships entering the Rio de la Plata Estuary. Architect Mario Pilanti apparently designed the tower so that it’s light could be seen from the top of another of  his creations, the Palacio Salvo in Montevideo, Uruguay, over 200kms away.

Palermo

It’s too late for coffee and too early for dinner, but Pablo declares it’s always a good time to plunge into the Greenwich Village-esque streets of Palermo, a vibrant, trendy ‘burb full of restaurants, bars and boutique shopping. We squeeze into a parking space barely the size of Pablo’s beaten up Peugeot and spend an hour wandering the streets trying to look as cool and chic as the rest of the crowd. A man runs past screaming “Ladrón!” which Pablo translates for me: “thief!” “Never leave anything on your table when you are at one of the outdoor cafes” he warns me with a shake of the head which suggests that in his view, each party is equally to blame for the poor fellow’s loss.

Parks and Gardens

There’s some stunning greenery in Buenos Aires, and Pablo expertly designs a route that enables us to take in the Parque 3 de Febrero, the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays (Botanical Gardens), Plaza Francia, the Japanese Garden and finally a stroll along the old docks – Juana Manuela Gorriti –  from which we get a great view of ‘New’ Buenos Aires across the Rio Darsena Sur. What strikes me as amazing isn’t so much the range and quality of the statues, monuments and modern art installations that adorn each space, its the runners! Apparently it’s the new thing in this town, and everyone’s doing it. Development of running paths can barely keep up with the opening of sneaker shops and sales of cross-trainers.

La Boca

As dusk settles, Pablo turns off the main road into a series of tree-lined streets with colourful houses and few people, and perhaps sensing that our tour to date has been as safe as it has been informative, he locks the doors and starts to tell me a little about the old Italian barrio of La Boca. Popular with tourists during the day but off-limits at night, Pablo’s caution is apparent in the way he slowly approaches each traffic light without ever coming to a complete stop (because of car-jackings) and orders me to hide my camera from view. No visit to La Boca is complete without a drive-by of the famous La Bombonera stadium, home of Boca Juniors football team, the launching point for the career of Argentina’s favourite son, Maradona – a Shane Warne-like idol who can apparently do no wrong in the eyes of millions of adoring fans.

An Argentine feast

Time is ticking away, and conscious that I still need to eat a famous Argentinian steak washed down with a bottle of classic red before we head back to the airport, Pablo directs his treasured taxi into the Recoleta area, home of some of his favourite, most authentic restaurants. The smoke of roasting meat mingles with cigar fumes to creates a sweet-smelling atmosphere that is as stimulating as it is slightly concerning, and our noses lead us to Pablo’s first suggestion, El Sanjuanino; apparently home to some superb steaks and Buenos Aires best empanadas.

The place is packed. Pablo shakes hands with the Maestro de, which apart from being encouraging, makes me feel slightly important, but alas doesn’t result in us finding a table – it’s a one hour wait. Next up is Restaurante Fervour, where the story is the same, and so it goes with Pablo’s next two choices. With just over two and a half hours left until my flight departs, we’re going to have to at least head point our search towards the airport.

“Wait – I know a place! I cannot believe I didn’t think of it before” Pablo exclaims with excitement. Back to his battered French chariot we head, and onto the freeway, airport bound.

“Its expensive, but now I think you have not enough time” says Pablo as his foot presses the accelerator. “It’s a place for the best meat in Buenos Aires!”

Expecting some lean-to backyard joint with meat hanging from hooks and gauchos playing horseshoes on a dusty pitch, I’m surprised when we eventually pull into a parking lot set against a row of trees and green lawns, with a large building beyond, modern in a retro-ranch kind of way. With an exterior resembling the set of the Masterchef Kitchen, El Mangrullo is cavernous, featuring white table cloths, dim lighting, and highly polished timber set across split-levels. Waiting staff dressed better than I am come and go as we stand at the entrance trying to get someone’s attention. Yep, this place is fancy.

Once again Pablo impresses with his ability to find and have a quick, knowing conversation with the person in charge. A firm handshake later, and we’re set up in a warm booth, flicking through a menu for each of wine, meat, and sides. Pablo declines to dine with me – he will eat with his family late tonight. I object, but apparently this is normal, and expected of him, so I don’t push.

The choices are infinite, and not wanting to waste any more time, I order a local specialty from ‘The Grill’, Ojo de bife – rib-eye medium rare. Add in some hand-cut fries and steamed string beans (for the health factor) and I suddenly realise I’m starving – my last meal was some kind of stale cheese roll on the flight from Lima about nine hours ago. Warm, soft pumpkin muffins appear while we wait, which go better than you would think with a big glass of Malbec – a dark Argentine Red. The steaming hot steak arrives and is presented like I’m meeting Argentine royalty, with the lesser lights – the sides – trailing behind. The South American reputation for quality red meat is legendary and with both my curiosity and stomach now thoroughly satisfied, it’s time to stumble back to Pablo’s waiting vehicle, and quickly trek back to the airport.

To be honest I’m slightly more than tipsy, and almost forget to pay my new chum in the rush, but with the business part of the night out of the way, with a hug, a pat on the back and a promise to return, we part like old friends.

It’s late and the airport is quiet. With such a big city you’d expect a 24 hour crush, but according to Pablo it’s not as busy as one might think; “What comes after Buenos Aires? Look at the map, there’s nothing, nowhere else to go”. Maybe that explains it. Security is quick and before I know it, I’m sitting outside my departure gate waiting for the call. Easing back into my chair and allowing myself a self-congratulatory moment after such a successful hit and run mission, I suddenly hear my name over the PA; “Would passenger Derek Green please present to Gate 31 – your flight is waiting to depart”. Oh crap, it must be the booze and the fact that I’m digesting half a cow, but I’ve somehow lost track of time – it’s all become a bit tighter than I thought!

As the flight departs and my seat reclines, through a wine-induced numbness I reflect on an afternoon and evening which had everything – culture, cuisine and crime – and drift off, well pleased that I have squeezed every ounce out of this stop-over’s hours and minutes.

So what’s your stop-over tipping point?