Argentina South America

Giving Back With Voluntario Global In Buenos Aires

Day 2 in Buenos Aires. The rain has cleared and it’s a beautiful, sunny summer day. We were scheduled to spend the first part of the day with the fine folks at Voluntario Global, the non profit organization that for the past several years has helped connect scores of volunteer travelers who wish to give back to some of the most vulnerable and poor in the greater Buenos Aires area.

Volunteers from Voluntario Global

Helping the poor in Buenos Aires is a daunting task. Argentina was once one of the world’s top economies. But having barely survived multiple financial crises, a military dictatorship and a war in the last few decades, it’s estimated that there are over 4 million people or almost 1/3 of Buenos Aires’ population living in poverty with over 1 million completely indigent and unable to purchase basic food needs.

We’re not talking the kind of poverty where Mommy or Daddy can’t afford a new X-box for little Jane or Johnny for Christmas kind of poor. We’re talking the bitter, devastating kind found throughout the better part of the third world kind; the kind where you regularly see young kids as young as 3 or 4 years old, juggling, playing music, or performing acrobatics or just plain begging at stop lights for spare change so their family can eat.

The Argentine government is unable (some say unwilling) to help all the poor, many of them recent immigrants from surrounding countries such as Peru, Ecuador or Paraguay or indigenous people from rural Argentina who make their way to the capital for a better opportunity and find it lacking.

That is where Voluntario Global comes in. They work with volunteer travelers from all over the world and help them connect with different organizations in Buenos Aires to make a difference. We interviewed the organization’s founder Valeria who gave us some insight on how the program works.

Voluntario Global Volunteer Signs The Wall

Voluntario Global offers many different packages that not only provide volunteer placement but can combine the traveler’s volunteer experience with long term accommodations, tango, salsa or Spanish classes, so it’s not all dreary work all the time if you don’t want it to be. I was really impressed with Voluntario Global’s mission but more importantly their enthusiasm and commitment to their mission. Their accommodations, reserved solely for volunteers,  did create a bit of envy from our production crew as we had rented an apartment in the Micro Center that was in dire need of remodeling.

They invited us to see some of the volunteers in action, so we headed off to one of Buenos Aires’ biggest psychiatric hospitals, where we met up with volunteer travelers from the U.S. who were helping the patients with creating a garden. Simple, relaxing tasks such as gardening can offer valuable therapy to patients as they begin to transition leaving the hospital to return to the outside world.

Next we made it over to one of the community food kitchens and computer training centers in the colorful but impoverished La Boca neighborhood. There volunteers can help in the kitchen or in the computer training center helping to train people with little access to technology.

Voluntario Global Volunteers Working the Kitchen

For travelers who’ve never visited Buenos Aires or for travelers seeking a new kind of experience when traveling, then Voluntario Global is really a valuable asset, not to mention the lifesaving services they are giving to help the many poor in Argentina, who’d have little to no hope otherwise. If you don’t find your way to Argentina but would still like to help out, Voluntario Global has fundraising opportunities as well. Visit their SITE to find out more.

One of the Many Tango Shows Along El Caminito

After we left the fine folks at Voluntario Global we continued our tour around the colorful, touristy but edgy neighborhood of La Boca. I say edgy because almost every travel guide out there and especially the locals will advise you against stumbling around La Boca at night. However, during the day, there is plenty to do and it’s full of tourists and police so you can walk along and find it as fun and inviting as anywhere in Buenos Aries, especially along the colorful if touristy El Caminito.

Demonstrating My Tango Moves in El Caminito

Caminito is a street with a long strip of restaurants and bars teeming with Tango Acts, performance artists and people hawking souvenirs. La Boca (the mouth) gets it’s name from the fact that it’s a port town. At the turn of the last century this is where many of the Italian immigrants ended up. The neighborhood was even more poor and hardscrabble during these times and the large barges and ships that came through would give or trade their excess paint to the locals, who used it to pain their “mostly” tin houses, the result is one of the most visually colorful spots in all of South America.

"Eva" and "Che" in El Caminito

Also La Boca is home to the legendary soccer team the “Boca Juniors” where the great (love him or hate him) soccer player Diego Maradona used to play.  Now if you’re not there on game day, no worries, then you can still check out the incredible museum and even walk out onto the legendary “La Bombonera” field to get some kind of feel for the craziness that is futbol (soccer) in Argentina.

Diego Maradona Mural in La Boca

But if you really want to get a feel for how crazy soccer is in Buenos Aires, hit up a game. Since we weren’t in La Boca on game day, I went to see the the Boca Junior’s chief rivals, “Club Atletico River Plate” play on the other side of town a few days later. Just remember not to wear your Boca Juniors souvenir shirt to a River Plate soccer game. You literally could get killed for this seemingly innocent mistake. We’re not talking “Jets vs. Giants” type of rivalry here. In Argentina, soccer is a akin to religion and it can get taken to a level that we in the U.S. see as insane.

Settling Into Our Seats Before The Game @ River Plate Stadium

The night I went with my buddy Humberto who organizes tour packages to the games for travelers.  River Plate was playing one of the other many soccer clubs in the Buenos Aires area. Let me tell you the atmosphere was out of this world, people singing, chanting, laughing, having a good time. Due to problems and extreme violence in the past, they no longer sell or allow alcohol at these events and the visiting team fans are required to enter the stadium from a completely different area of town under heavy, heavy police escort.

As the game wore on and River Plate, which was in a slump, seemed destined to lose. The crowd went from joyous to downright surly. Before the game began, when I had my video camera out, fans were clowning around, trying to get in the shot and welcoming me to the game, but now they were giving me a vibe of “get that camera out of my face” and I did so.

Futbol (Soccer) Is BIG in Argentina

River Plate lost, didn’t even score a goal and Humberto apologized on behalf of the team, saying it was one of the worst soccer games he’d seen in a while. For me, a very casual futbol fan, I  had a great time taking in the atmosphere of a professional soccer match in Buenos Aires.

When the game was over we, the home fans, were required to stay in the stadium for a good half hour to 45 minutes more as the visiting fans were allowed a generous head start to leave the stadium safely (once again under police escort). The visiting fans, knowing the home fans can’t  leave until well after they do, often take their time leaving, sticking around to chant songs and taunt the home fans (especially after a visiting victory).

I can’t imagine a sport, any sport, being taken to these extremes but there is a ton of history and rivalry between clubs in Buenos Aires. When you think about the insane amount of money and respect paid to athletes in the U.S. these days well…I’m not sure which is the bigger fallacy.

The Sunday Crowd @ San Telmo Flea Market

The next day was a Sunday and I wanted to hit up the big antique flea market in the historic neighborhood of San Telmo. San Telmo is one of Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhoods and it is really quiet a charming area of town. It has a bit more of a gritty feel to it than the upscale neighborhoods of Palermo or Recoleta, but it also has more of a neighborhood feel to it as well.

San Telmo - The Oldest Barrio in Buenos Aires

San Telmo is within walking distance of major tourist sites and has a lovely section of restaurants and bars at Plaza Dorrego which set along cobblestone streets. The flea market is huge stretching along block after block and attracting locals and tourist alike each and every weekend. There are probably at least a dozen or so hostels and hotels in the neighborhood of San Telmo that attract a more alternative, indie budget traveler. So if you decide to break with the crowd and stay in San Telmo rather than the other more upscale areas of Buenos Aires, you’ll be in good company.

NEXT UP: We get outside of the city and get an amazing change of atmosphere with some common day trips.

Argentina South America

Buenos Aires – Going Underground!

Today we took the Buque Bus or ferry boat from Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The trip is short and pleasant and if you buy the ticket ahead of time, inexpensive. It’s one of those trips that where you arrive earlier than when you left due to time zone difference. As for the crew, we’re thankful for the extra hour of sleep Buenos Aires will provide (though we are still much farther ahead than NYC or the crew’s home base of Bogota).

At the Obelisco

It was raining when we arrived but when the skies cleared we set out to take a few shots of the this amazing city. 

We visited Casa Rosada (Pink House) in Plaza Mayor, which is sort of like the U.S. White House. If you go on the weekend you can usually get a free tour that is pretty fascinating. If you do the tour be sure and get a photo from the famous balcony where the leader Evita Peron addressed her mostly adoring throngs.

From Casa Rosada, we  took the metro (subway) to meet up with Michael Luongo, a North American travel writer and expert on all things Buenos Aires who had graciously agreed to show us around his adopted city. If you take the A Line, many of the trains are the old school wooden cars like they had when the metro first debuted as the first subway in Latin America around the turn of the last century; complete with a car attendant to open and shut the doors manually.

We met Michael at the famous Buenos Aires landmark the Obelisco. We then headed to Calle Florida, the equally famed pedestrian street packed with, you guessed it, pedestrians.  Calle Florida is indeed crowded and chaotic but it’s a great place to people watch and catch some interesting street performers ranging from jugglers, tango dancers and musicians to just about anything you can think of.  Just remember to watch your belongings as a tourist carelessly flaunting cameras or a backpack would make an easy target in the crowd.

Cemetario de Recoleta

After Calle Florida, we visited the memorial to the Falklands War with Britain, which took place in the early 1980s.  Several hundred Argentines died in that crazy war for the Falkland Islands and the memorial’s flames burn 24/7 as a constant reminder of those killed and wounded in action.

Next we made our way to the famed Cemeterio de la Recoleta where the aforementioned former leader Evita and several other rich and famous Argentines are buried.  The hundreds of tombs are incredible works of art and despite the throngs of tourists, it’s still a very active cemetery.

Robert with travel writer Michael Luongo @ Cemetario de la Recoleta

After saying our adieu to Michael we headed over to Galeria Bond Street, which is a very interesting little shopping center that caters to underground sub cultures. There are cool tattoo parlors and clothing stores for the punk, rockabilly, goth crowd of Buenos Aires.

We stopped by this cool little store called “Faith” owned by a really nice cat named Sebastian. Sebastian says he designs everything himself and I really fell in love with some of the clothes, so despite not having much room in my luggage, I bought some cool shirts and a pair of shorts which you’ll see me sport in the show. If you’re into punk or rockabilly or tattoo culture, you need to seek out Galleria Bond Street and if you do, stop by Faith and say hello to our good buddy Sebastian, the clothes were really outstanding.

Street Artist @ Calle Florida

After Galeria Bond Street we headed back to the apartment for a short rest before heading to Complejo Tango (Complex Tango), one of the many tango schools and shows in Buenos Aires. Michael had recommended Complejo Tango as one of the finest in the city where you can not only take in a first class tango show and dinner, but if you so desire, you can learn to tango yourself. Michael was right, Complejo Tango was first rate. I heartily recommend visitors interested in learning a few tango steps to sign up for the complimentary lessons before the dinner and show. I did it and I’m happy to say, though I have two left feet, I was able to showcase a couple of major moves for the camera.

After the delicious dinner at Complejo Tango we headed off the beaten path a little to Mundo Bizarro (Bizarre World) one of my favorite bars in all of Buenos Aires.  Walking into Mundo Bizarro is like walking into another world. It’s got red tinged lighting all over the place that gives it this dreamlike quality (especially after a drink or two). There are rockabilly memorabilia and posters on the wall and you could easily forget your in South America. Pignatta (pronounced “piñata” like the birthday toy), the manager, is as cool as they come and can mix a mean martini.  People come from all over the world to sample Pignatta’s world famous martinis and listen to some rockabilly tunes.

Mundo Bizarro - Pignatta mixing his famous martini

Continuing our underground subculture theme, we headed over to another famous music spot called Salon Pueyrredon, where you can catch some good live punk, alternative or rock music and rub elbows with some of Buenos Aires’ underground artists. If the music is too loud, then no worries, there is a cool little patio/porch like area where people sit by the open air window chill and socialize.

Salon Pueyrredon

What a day? We had been in two countries and combined visiting the touristy sites with more of the underground nightspots of Buenos Aires.  Argentina is one of my favorite places on the planet. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Chilling @ Salon Pueyredon