Argentina has a strange population distribution. Its largest city, Buenos Aires, is home to 13.5 million people. Córdoba is the second largest, with a population of 1.6 million. Jimi’s home city of Tucumán comes in sixth, at just under a million. But while the population of Córdoba is less than double that of Tucumán, the city feels ten times as big.
Córdoba was built to contain a large population. There are wide avenues, tall apartment complexes, and large plazas. It’s a great city to walk around, as each block contains both old colonial buildings and brand new, modern edifices. The central part of the city is home to Jesuit convents and cathedrals dating back to the 1500s. Slightly to the south is an area called Nueva Córdoba, which has much more of a hipster, college city vibe. Of course, this was all information I gathered from Jimi and our Lonely Planet guidebook. I was excited to get a taste of the city for myself.
Jimi and I, along with Marlene (Jimi’s mother), arrived in Córdoba late in the afternoon. From the bus terminal we took a cab to Marlene’s sister’s apartment. I was surprised to discover that Aunt Lia lived above a beauty shop— which she also owned and operated. It was just blocks from the heart of downtown and served as a perfect home base for exploring this new city.
We headed north from her apartment, walking past a number of universities and museums along our route. The Jesuit block is one of the major landmarks in Córdoba. I found it rather underwhelming. The main sanctuary was dark and eerie, while the old university campus was bland-looking and felt empty.
So, when we walked across the street to Plaza San Martin I was completely awestruck. The Iglesia Catedral is an incredible structure. The Jesuits began construction in 1577, but the project dragged on for more than two centuries under various architects. The outside was striking and the inside only complemented it further.
For lunch, we dined at a beautiful parrilla (traditional steakhouse) called Alcorta. Whenever we go to a new restaurant, Jimi’s first question to the server is: “Which do you recommend, the filet or the bife de chorizo?” Filet tends to skew more tender, while bife de chorizo is typically more flavorful. Every restaurant seems to have one cut that they pride themselves in. At Alcorta, it was the bife de chorizo: four-hundred grams of meat that was perfectly cooked through and you could cut with a butter knife. For the record, Jimi ate every last bite.
We explored Nueva Córdoba the next few days. I enjoyed the more modern aspects of the restaurants and shops, but the few older landmarks were impressive, as well. The Palacio Ferrerya was a mansion built in 1914 and now acts as a fine arts museum. It’s beautiful, quiet and the grounds are spacious. It was a break from the city, squarely in the middle of the busy streets.
Jimi’s cousin, Samuel, offered to take us to his home one afternoon. We drove about forty minutes outside the city. The suburbs sprawled out across the hills in distinct contrast to the carefully planned city grid. Samuel’s house was brand new— they were still waiting for driveway to be paved out front. We parked his small jeep in the dirt out front and went inside. The view from his back porch was quite stunning. The kitchen was shiny with new appliances. Although it was only a 2-bedroom, it felt much bigger due to its open layout. Samuel explained that the government had instated a housing incentive and so many people were able to build new homes.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how much did it cost to build your house?” I asked, slightly sheepish but raging with curiosity.
“Ours was just about 750,000 pesos,” he answered cordially.
Jimi and I exchanged incredulous glances. By today’s exchange rate, Samuel had paid about $45,000. Samuel looked at us quizzically.
I laughed and said, “Yeah, you could hardly make a down payment on a house for that in California.”
That evening, after Samuel drove us back to Aunt Lia’s apartment, the whole family came over for an asado, or barbecue. Jimi and Samuel were in charge of preparing the huge grille, while Marlene, Lia, and her three daughters prepared the other dishes in the kitchen. I was left in charge of Lia’s grandchildren. Sophia and Carolina were feisty four-year-olds who loved playing with their Barbies and watching Frozen. Sound familiar?
Dinner was a feast. Eleven of us (babies included) gathered in the cozy kitchen to eat the meat the men had prepared outside. The steak was delicious. Marinated in only salt and lemon, the cuts of beef took on the flavor of the smoke from the grill. It was so flavorful and juicy! Even the best restaurants we had visited couldn’t compare to the experience of eating those savory cuts in the kitchen.
Before we left, Aunt Lia reminded us that we were welcome to stay with her anytime. Jimi and I said that we would certainly try and visit again.
Córdoba carved its own special place in my heart. I loved the food, the architecture, and the buzz of the people on the streets. It’s such a luxury to know that if we want to come back again, we can!