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Eco-tourism, bikes and tango in Buenos Aires

If there is one thing the city of Buenos Aires was definitely made for, it was cycling. For a start, it is a flat as a pancake, with straight streets, in a grid like fashion. The only thing really holding it back is the traffic. As anyone who has taken a taxi ride in Buenos Aires will contest, driving here is very similar to being in a video game, where lines are more suggestions rather than actual lanes to follow, hazard lights flashing mean ¨looking for a carpark but will probably end up just double parked¨, indicators are just for show and very rarely used, the give-way-to-the-right at intersections has exceptions which include who has the biggest car or who is going fastest, the horn is an appropriate way to convey your feelings and speed limits are simply numbers that mean nothing. Biking, really, was taking your life in your hands and you needed eyes in all directions and it was inevitable that you would end up on the bumpy footpath to make sure you arrived safely at your destination. 

But all of that has changed since 2015. The city started building more cycleways - also know as bicisendas. These bicycle lanes are dual direction and are separated from the traffic with a little barrier. Usually these remain car free although it has been known to have had irate neighbours who are angry at their parking space being taken, parking in it anyway. In addition to that, the local council has also added Ecobici. Ecobici is the city´s free to use, bright orange bicycle rental system that allows you to access a free bike from almost 400 stations, 24 hours a day, every day of the year.  And with 4000 bikes available, there should be one very close to you. There is over 200km of bike lanes interconnected throughout the city including through the infamous ¨green lungs¨ parks of Palermo, so whether you are after a small or large ride, you should be able to bike to your hearts content.

But what has that to do with tango you ask? Well, in today´s climate of sustainable tourism, a tango enthusiast might just find that biking from milonga to milonga is rather a good option instead of opting for waiting for a taxi. There are a few rules about using the bikes which include being over 18 if a tourist, only having an hour (or 2 hours on weekends and holidays) to use the bike before having to return it to a station and needing to use an App on your smart phone. If you need your bike for longer, you can simply return it and wait 5 minutes before asking for another. By using the interactive map at https://www.buenosaires.gob.ar/ecobici/red-ciclovias/estacionamiento, you can see the closest bike station to you and see all the lanes crisscrossing the city. 

If you fancy getting out and filling your night dancing tango, you could start off the evening by heading to La Glorieta, the open air milonga held in the old bandstand in Barrancas de Belgrano. Jump on an Ecobici bike and either head to Salon Canning or Club Malcolm in Palermo or even all the way to El Tacuari or La Mariposita in San Telmo. Thinking of finishing off the night at La Viruta in the hope to catch their 5am medialunas? There is an Ecobici station on the corner of Gorriti and Armenia, a block and a half away from the milonga. And rumour has it, the medialunas are totally worth it. 

But what about the chaotic traffic, I hear you wonder. Well, cars are not the only thing you have to look out for while biking in this city. In a city where pedestrians are always in the right, new bike lanes are taking some getting used to for porteños who are used to only dealing with chaotic traffic. It is not uncommon for people to simply step out to cross the road without looking both ways, or to wait at an intersection standing right in the bike lane. Otherwise, get out there, feel the wind in your hair (no helmets required!), and enjoy all this city has to offer on two wheels.

Autumn and Tango in Buenos Aires.

(Photo Credit and Copyright Rebecca Travaglia 2013)

The city is in the grip of autumn with winter nipping at its heels. The trees are either bare or holding onto the last of their fluttering yellow and green leaves. The only pops of colour come from the orange trees that are found in various barrios lining the sides of the streets. Grey merges into grey as the concrete skyline blends into the moody skies that are accompanying this season. However, this is one of the best times that travelling the city with a soundtrack of tango just makes sense. You can feel the sadness and lament of the lyrics reflected in the puddled cobblestone streets, and sense glints of hope and warmth that lie hidden behind the closed and shuttered doors and windows. Strains of tango music creep under doors and down stairways, enticing you in from the sadness of the streets into a celebration of dance. And a malbec or two.

Porteños (local Buenos Aires residents), from what I can tell, are creatures of warmth and go into hibenation at the first sign of the artic wind and a cloudy sky. They rug up warm and reluctantly head outdoors if they have to, bustling through the narrow streets with head down, usually to make it to their nearest cafe for a piping hot coffee. But head to a milonga, and you are greeted with a different type of porteño. Away from the cold wind and with the warmth of a tango abrazo (embrace) , the spark of the people returns. 

Tango is a myriad of sentiments all mixed into one. It has the grit of the street and the beauty of love. It has the darkness of night mixed with the light of hope. It has the sentiment of loneliness whilst danced in an embrace of connection. The music can have the forlorn lament of sadness with the melodic embelishments of desires and dreams. It comes from the streets where this juxtaposition of worlds exists. Simply walk only a few blocks within the central city to pass from the gritty streets of San Telmo, the grandeur of Avenida de Mayo and into the parisian opulence of Recoleta. 

The great tango writers took inspiration from the streets and from love, for their lyrics and melodies. A great song to take you through this season is Rosa de Otoño or Autumn Rose. Written in 1923, it is a Vals (or waltz) that was made famous by Carlos Gardel (the golden boy of tango). A love song, it expresses his love for a girl/the city/tango  (it never really is explicit although we can assume it is love for a woman) and that without her, he will become sick. Despite all that he suffers, he remains ever hopeful and that is reflected through the melody that weaves its way through the vals. 

So if you are out on this overcast autumn day, why not add Rosa de Otoño to your playlist for a beautiful soundtrack as you walk the streets of Buenos Aires. 

Rosa de otoño

Tu eres la vida, la vida dulce,
llena de encantos y lucidez;
tú me sostienes y me conduces
hacia la cumbre de tu altivez.
Tú eres constancia, yo soy paciencia;
tú eres ternura, yo soy piedad
Tú representas la independencia,
yo simbolizo la libertad.
Tú bien lo sabes que estoy enfermo
y en mi semblante claro se ve
que ya de noche casi no duermo,
no duermo nada ¿sabes por qué?
Porque yo sueño cómo te aprecio,
de que a mi lado te he de tener...
Son sueños malos, torpes y necios,
pero, mi vida, ¡qué voy a hacer!
Yo sufro mucho, me duele el alma
y es tan penosa mi situación
que muchas veces, por buscar calma,
llevo mis dedos al diapasón...
De tu desprecio nunca hagas gala
porque, si lo haces, ¡pobre de mí!...
Quereme siempre, no seas tan mala...
Vamos, ingrata, ¡no seas así!

Autumn rose

You are the life, sweet life,
full of charm and brightness,
you support me and drive me
towards the plnacle of your pride..
You are perseverance, I am patience,
you are tenderness, I am piety.
You represent independence
I symbolize liberty.
You very well know that I am sick
and in my face, clearly can be seen
that, at night, I hardly sleep,
I don't sleep at all, do you know why?
Because I dream how I appreciate you,
that I must have you by my side...
They are bad dreams, awkward and foolish
but, my darling, what can I do?
I suffer badly, my soul hurts,
and my situation is so painfull
that many times, searching for comfort,
I take my fingers to the diapason...
Don't you ever show off your desdain
because, if you do, poor me!
Love me always, don't be so bad.
Come on, ingrate, don't be like that!

How to taste the real Buenos Aires

Artist and Poet María Paz Levinson. Photo copyright Rebecca T

The thing I love about Buenos Aires are its hidden gems. They aren’t hidden exactly, but they are not screaming at you from each corner. It requires a lot of walking and an inquisitive nature to find what exactly is behind that grungy old door half way down that potentially dodgy looking street that looks like it could be a half in Lima and half in 1984. Of course, it is easy to find the nice places in the areas that look like they are part of an antique Paris, but while these can offer comfort, they usually lack the character of the real BsAs.

One morning after first moving here, I was bemoaning the fact that there are no cafes near my house to my early morning commuter buddy, I was made to eat my words (thankfully in the form of medialunas) as I happened to look across the intersection from my door to see a perfectly acceptable small cafe open for business. Let’s remember that I’ve been living in my current apartment for nigh on two months and this is the first time this cafe’s bright blue doors have made themselves known to me. And it was duly noted. Next time I have a desperate early morning need for coffee, I know I only have to roll out of bed and walk about 20 metres.

The schizophrenic nature of the buildings in this city impresses upon you the need to not judge this place by its cover. Last Sunday I was taken to an unimpressive corner building to eat some of the best fresh home made pasta around. From the outside, it could have been any type of restaurant from the 80s. Inside, the 1980s theme continued with the concrete walls adorned with a mishmash of artifacts from over the years. Old tango vinyl, pictures of what can only be assumed to be the owner´s favourite fútbol team, photographs of tango dancers and the obligatory argentinian flag, swaying in the wind produced by the air conditioner which frantically worked to take the chill out of the air.

Two women sat at the entrance of the restaurant, busy rolling the soft dough into various long worm looking shapes, crafting the delicacy that was soon to be enjoyed by the onslaught of lunchtime customers. And it was good pasta. Not just good but extremely good. The mafioso type family run business is a local institution (so my local guide tells me), which, before he died, had included the father of the family walking around handing out change from large wads of rolled up bills. As this was prior to the non smoking law that came in recently in Buenos Aires, it didn’t take much imagination to envision the head of the family chewing on a cigar as he schmoozed with his customers and friends, probably planning all sorts of mafia mischief.

Another not so hidden, but out of the way gem is Lo de Roberto. This bar is the smallest bar I have squeezed into with other people since my uni days when we used to frequent the aptly named Inch Bar (which for the record, only just qualifies as having enough room to swing a cat). Strains of tango guitar greeted us as we opened the door and it took just two steps from the door to reach the only bar stools left in the entire place. Those gathered to listen were nursing their drinks and dreamily listening to the laments of tango, respectfully waiting until the musician´s break before resuming their conversations. A small tango bar located beside Plaza Almargo and opened by 1984. Retaining a youthful feel by the artistic students that frequent it, it is well known as being a place to enjoy a wine and a very intimate performance of tango. 

One favourite memory from this city was another hidden gem which we enjoyed from the depths of a Centro cultural whose single glass door entry way is off of the tourist infested Florida. In the bowels of the building with just a sprinkling of other people, we enjoyed poetry and music from two local artists and poets. These intimate gigs are in abundance in this city, but its a matter of finding them. This is when you will feel that you get to experience the real BsAs.


El Momento Era Subir
De María Paz Levinson

Las noches de nieve eran divertidas
Subir la cuesta con los esquíes en la mano
Para tirarnos y llegar rápido hasta la ruta de abajo
Lo hacíamos en la noche hasta cansarnos

Y así llegábamos al fondo del invierno

Cada tanto autos en ambas direcciones
Cruzando la noche muy despacio con vidrios de hielo
La nieve se veía anaranjada
Las casas se iban apagando
Llenábamos las petacas con un licor fuerte
Era de guindas y estaba en un mueble oscuro
El botellón como una gota de sangre gigante

Y así llegábamos al fondo del invierno



Excerpts from a travelling tanguera - The Tango Community

Photo credit: Nick Kenrick 2014

The skies were grey and threatening and I tried not to let that dampen my spirits as I kept walking down the deserted main street. Cursing under my breath for being so late, I hurried along trying to find any sign of street numbers to guide me in the direction of the small bar that apparently lay within the block of shops. I was on my way to meet friends in a town where, many years ago, I had danced many a milonga. But the facade of the main street had changed so much since my time that I had trouble locating the little bar where the milonga was held. It wasn't until I was almost on top of the front stoop when the strains of the bandoneon reached my ears and through the dimly lit window I could make out dancing partners at the end of the narrow building. 

Breathing a sigh of relief, I shook off the gloomy day and entered into the warmth of the local milonga. A small community of dancers met every week here, and through the strength of their passion this dance is kept alive in this small town. Among the familiar faces, there were new faces - always a good thing at milongas as new faces bring new dance styles into the mix. 

Walking into a milonga during a tanda (set of songs to dance to), can be slightly odd. In this case, all the familiar faces were partnered up and moving through their own bubbles on the dance floor, which meant there was no one to greet me back into this old world. There was time to sit, put on shoes and smile at those others who were unfamiliar to me also sitting at their tables. This changed once the tanda ended, and I was swept up into a myriad of hugs and kisses and exclamations of surprise from those who didn't know I was back in town.

There aren't a lot of situations in which catching up with old friends means dancing with them. You can say a lot through tango, as you bring more than just physical movement to the dance. Connection to both self and your partner are so important and depending on how you are emotionally that day, can affect the way you dance. So the best way to catch up with an old dancing friend is to do that - simply dance. It lets you catch up on the intangible without interruption.

This particular milonga had a wonderful feeling to it. The skies eventually opened up and rain poured down, adding to the cosy feel of the little wooden bar. The dance floor was small and snug, but just with enough space for those couple to navigate with ease. The afternoon was peppered with lively conversation as well as wonderful tandas. On the way home, as I watched the street lamps light up the rain on the bus, it got me thinking about how tango really does bring a sense of community to its dancers. While there are different circles - those who dance strictly traditional or those who have broken the embrace to dance a fluid open style, you are able to find a place to settle and those friends who dance a similar style, at least in my experience, will always welcome you with open arms.  An interesting characteristic since the music we dance to laments solitude, broken hearts, lost love and all manner of seemingly depressing romances.  

I remember those first lessons, where all you seemed to do is practice walking. The stark light of the studio, the glaring mirrors highlighting those robotic movements you are working hard to lose, and the thought that maybe you might never learn how to relax into the movement and gather the grace and flow those dancers you admire all seem to possess in grand quantities. But with time and patience, through repeatedly dancing with those in the community, by reminding yourself that heading out to a milonga at night will actually improve your mood rather than depress you, confidence starts to take over and the tango bug threatens to bite. It made me smile, thinking back to the moment when I knew I was under the tango spell. 

So if you are looking for a change or to do a new activity, just remember - if you can walk, you can tango. And with one class you open the door to invite in a whole new community. 

Celebrating the National Day of Tango in the City of Tango itself.

If you were out and about in Avenida de Mayo on Saturday 8th December, you would have found yourself in a wonderland of tango. Three stages, live music and a mixture of both dancing high heels and sneakers would have greeted you as you meandered your way along the infamous Buenos Aires street. 

La Gran Milonga Nacional is a yearly staple in Buenos Aires since 2007.  It preempts the National Day of Tango which is celebrated on the 11th  December - also incidently the birthday of the golden boy of tango, Carlos Gardel, who would be celebrating his 128th birthday if he could be here with us today.  La Gran Milonga Nacional is when Avenida de Mayo transforms itself into a 8000sqm dance floor for anyone inclined, complete with seating for those wishing to sit and enjoy, and a sprinkling of magic with hundreds of fairy lights. For those who are used to smaller milonga halls, it can be a shock to see just how many tourists and locals alike can be crammed into such a big space and still find a way to dance without trodding on toes.  You are also quite likely to find people dancing where ever they can find space - whether that is in a designated area, or simply in the corner behind the chairs.  

Most amazing to admire perhaps, is the ability for two people dancing together to get lost in the moment of the music and movement with each other, rather than being acutely aware of the hundreds of other people dancing around them. This is what makes tango so special. While the leader must still have a sense of whats around them and how others are moving about the floor, nothing really exists between the two dancers except the ´here and now´ within the music.  And nothing makes this more evident than watching a follower with their eyes closed, on a crowded street/dance floor with their leader dreamily moving smoothly together, seemingly dancing in an invisible bubble oblivious of those around them. 

Also, you will notice that the high kicks and lightening speed flicks that you see during tango shows, is not present in a milonga such as this. This is traditional milonga, which has been danced for many many years in halls (and probably alleyways) of this city. The most important part of this style isn´t whether you can do some amazing dance move. It is if you can connect and be with your dance partner for those three songs and enjoy the moment with them. Which sounds quite easy if it is at an outdoor milonga, under a clear sky, with a warm breeze, and right in the beating heart of the City of Tango. 

That said, if you did manage to make it and to stay late (in true porteño style), then you would have been in for a treat as the Piazzolla Tango Show dancers gave a dazzling performance for the audience. These performers work hard at their art, and to be able to convey a sense of ease when performing such daring moves in high slitted dresses and high heels, is deserving of all the credit they get. 

If you missed the milonga, make sure you head out for a tango treat on the 11th December - whether that means watching an orchestra, dancing a tango or taking a class. You won´t regret it.