A Cycling Tour Of Buenos Aires

 

 

I enter the offices of Urban Bikers in Buenos Aires rather apprehensively. It’s a stifling, humid summer afternoon and I’m about to go on a three-hour city tour by bike wending my way through the most chaotic traffic in Latin America. Eat your heart out cage shark divers! Who’s flirting with real danger now?

I was worried, but shouldn't have been. Predictably, Ana, my guide, wanted to live, too, so we avoided busy traffic junctions. But the big surprise were the cycle lanes. Since 2011 the mayor of Buenos Aires has created a whopping 100km of cycle paths separated from car lanes via small, but psychologically significant, raised boundaries.

We start at Plaza San Martín, named after Argentina’s national hero whose statue commands the square. This provides an opportunity for Ana to give me the lowdown of the history of Buenos Aires from the first colonization attempts in 1536 to the stirrings of independence in 1810 and beyond. She proves a great storyteller throughout the tour, with juicy gossip peppering her tales, especially as she approaches the modern times.

Our next stop is in front of the railway clocktower, built by British merchants in 1910 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Argentinian revolution. Originally called Torre de los Ingleses and nicknamed ‘Big Ben’ (though it looks nothing like the original), it was rebranded Torre Monumental after the Falklands war. Unsurprisingly, it’s been vandalised with a frequency that follows the ups and downs of Argentina’s relationship with Britain. I bet it wasn’t a coincidence that the Malvinas Memorial was built facing this particular clocktower.

We hit the first big traffic junction. It’s choc-a-bloc, so we glide easily through the stationary cars onto the long Avenida Eduardo Madero. We’re headed to one of the city’s hidden attractions: the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve, a green urban refuge with paths, ponds and perennials stretching over 865 acres.

In the shade, at last, we reach the Rio de la Plata riverbank where porteño families are sunbathing and swimming in the shallow waters – 300 metres in and they’re still only half-submerged. Birdlife abounds but so does insect activity: after battling off mosquitoes, picking out ticks and swatting sandflies, we decide to move on.

We’re now in the Puerto Madero district; the Buenos Aires docklands with warehouses converted into modern apartments. Although locals turn their noses up at Puerto Madero, because it lacks the identity of a barrio, foreigners love it. Maybe I’m showing my foreignness myself, but there’s a lot to be said for the tranquillity and charm of the canal that runs through it, with its four picturesque boat locks and iron bridges.

Another scary moment passes as we cycle through an access road to the main Buenos Aires-La Plata highway before we reach the Boca district. Ana warns me: although Boca is one of the prime tourists spots in Buenos Aires, parts of it are fraught with danger. Indeed, we cycle through crumbling housing estates that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bronx circa 1990 and through narrow streets where sullen youngsters are hanging around.

And yet Boca’s port at the mouth of Rio Riachuelo is an explosion of colour, noise and movement like no other: street entertainers struggle to be heard next to ear-splitting restaurant touts, vivid shop signs fight it out with dazzling graffiti and backpackers with selfie sticks interfere with amateur photographers setting up their Nikons on tripods. Who cares if the shop prices on the central Caminito are sky-high – look at those painted houses!

Dicey or not, I prefer Boca than San Telmo, another Buenos Aires beauty spot, which, however, I can’t fully enjoy on the saddle. The cobblestone streets that looked so pretty and authentic when I was here last Sunday are a bugger to cycle over. I have to use my diminishing muscle power to stop my bike veering to the right and onto innocent pedestrians or to the slow moving traffic on the left and into a taxi that’s been stopping and starting next to me since Parque Lezama. I know the driver’s angry with me because, when finally we reach the traffic lights of the wide Avenida Independencia, he revs off noisily, leaving me to breathe a lungful of petrol fumes. I can only pray he uses unleaded.

From then on it’s plain sailing, so to speak, until we reach Plaza de Mayo facing the Presidential palace. Overlooked by the old Town Hall and the Cathedral that gave the world a Pope, this is the nerve centre of the capital, Argentina’s own Tahrir Square. It’s here where Evita made those firebrand speeches in the 1940s; it’s here where Argentina’s mothers protested against the disappearance of their sons during the country’s Dirty War; and it’s here today that 350 ex-soldiers hold a vigil for the right to be recognized as Falklands war veterans.

We cycle the final few kilometres back to Plaza San Martín through Calle Reconquista, against the one-way traffic. Apparently it’s easier to see the cars coming at you in the narrow streets of the centre. But hey, who cares? After pedalling for 18 kms, I feel like a veteran Buenos Aires cyclist.  And proud of it.

 

You can get Argentina included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world or the 4 Continent Explorer round the world or there are cheaper options via Latin America here