Don’t be fooled by the ambrosial pastries, the omnipresent bottle of red wine and the hordes of impossibly slim women sipping an espresso and cradling their Louis Vuitton — French is not the language of Buenos Aires. Those who love the ‘Paris of South America' know that although its broad avenues, stylish inhabitants, and mouth-watering cuisine may look to Europe for inspiration, its unique charm can only be described as 100% Argentine.
The birthplace of tango and the heir of gaucho (Latin cowboy) endurance and pride, Buenos Aires enjoys worldwide fame — and rightly so — for its exquisite leather goods, superb Malbec wines, savoury steaks, inexpensive plastic surgery and (draw your own conclusions) beautiful women. However, those are only a few of the reasons travellers are suddenly flocking to Argentina...and in some cases, never going home.
Spaniard Pedro de Mendoza founded Buenos Aires in 1536, and it became a thriving port, inspiring the nickname Porteños for the residents of the growing city. By the 1920s, it was a favoured destination for European immigrants, who were mostly Spanish and Italian, but also German, Irish, Portuguese, Polish, Irish, French, Croatian, English, and Arab...all seeking a fresh start in the city of ‘Good Air’.
My own motivation for heading to Argentina was the desire to immerse myself in the language and culture — and it didn’t hurt that young Prince Harry happened to be there at the time perfecting his polo. After minimal research, I arrived in the city I would soon affectionately refer to as ‘BA’ with a vocabulary almost as miniscule as my budget. Of the 13 million residents, I knew not a soul.
Sipping a glass of wine in San Telmo on my second day, I received an unexpected invitation to join a nearby Argentine couple. “Buenos Aires — and wine — must be shared with friends,” they insisted.
Instead of reminding them that we were not friends and that, in fact, I was a lowly American with a horrific accent and an embarrassing dislike of cow intestines (a delicacy in Argentina), I gratefully accepted. Five hours later, after sharing several bottles of Torrontés wine, a delectable dinner, and a leisurely boat ride along the Rio de la Plata, I realised why Buenos Aires is experiencing a tourism renaissance.
It isn’t the enticing new restaurants, the exceptional shopping, the stimulating art scene, or even the swinging nightlife; it’s the manner in which Argentines go out of their way to share their culture with foreign visitors. In Buenos Aires, even complete strangers are treated like old friends.
I remember my first ride into the city from Ezeiza International Airport well. My taxi driver Luciano was resplendent in a mullet-esque hairstyle and a T-shirt featuring soccer deity Diego Maradona. Squinting into a rear-view mirror draped with rosaries and pictures of his mother, he launched into a riveting monologue revolving around local political intrigue (“The mayor is a corrupt pig, and secretly a Chilean”), Brazilian samba (“not half as good as Argentine cumbia music”), and those sinister Paraguayans (“$%#&@!”). Needless to say, national pride runs high in Argentina — often at the expense of the countries that border it.
After wrapping up his political diatribe, Luciano first requested my phone number, and then attempted to cheat me outrageously on the taxi fare, using ingenious tactics such as “I don’t have change for a five-peso bill.” After a heated argument, he insisted on carrying my bag upstairs, waiting until I was safely inside, and presenting me with a package of alfajores (scrumptious Argentine cookies) before departing with a bow.
Other initial impressions remain equally vivid — the cotton-candy-pink Casa Rosada where the president resides, the fantastical Recoleta Cemetery with its ornate above-ground mausoleums (including that of the famous ‘Evita’ Peron), and the impossibly broad Rio de la Plata, meaning ‘River of Silver’. Overly optimistic (and possibly inebriated) Spanish explorers coined the name for the mighty river, which is actually more a caramel brown.
I was enthralled by the street performers amid antiques shops in Spanish-inspired San Telmo, fascinated by the chain-smoking amigos deep in conversation at the chichi cafes of Recoleta, and disheartened by the child-clowns begging for pesos at major stoplights. Despite the poverty that is visible beneath the sheen of affluent neighbourhoods, Buenos Aires is generally quite safe (although First Daughter Barbara Bush did manage to get her cellphone stolen, despite being heavily guarded by the Secret Service).
Like Indians, Argentines consider cows sacred, but their worship takes a decidedly different form. Rather than strolling along major highways and lollygagging on street corners, cows are most likely to be found sizzling on the parilla (grill) at one of the numerous local restaurants famous for their asado (grilled meat).
Vegetarians need not despair, however. Thanks to its abundance of Italian immigrants, Buenos Aires offers a succulent variety of pastas and pizzas, not to mention dulce de leche, an irresistibly creamy caramel that is equally good on toast, ice cream or straight out of the jar (don’t tell my grandmother!). Hotspots such as Casa Cruz, Cluny, and Bar 6 are as popular for their atmosphere as for their cuisine, and at teatime, the clear choice is the resplendent Café Tortoni, whose clientele over the years has included literary, scientific and political cult figures from Borges to Einstein. Jazz and tango performances accompany your succulent miga sandwiches and obligatory maté cocido (a bitter green tea that is a national obsession).
People dine late in Buenos Aires — which allows plenty of time for a drink at one of the city’s alluring bars or lounges beforehand. Sip nonchalantly on a basil daiquiri and people-watch at Milion, my favourite mansion-turned-upscale-bar, or savour a glass of bubbly Chandon at Philippe Starck’s extravagant, avant-garde Faena hotel. Indulge your personal culinary whim by choosing from the smorgasbord of restaurants that line the waterfront — Sushi Club for the freshest fish, Sotto Voce for exquisite Italian fare, Cabaña de las Lilas to satisfy your carnivorous cravings. All of these are located in the spectacularly revamped neighbourhood of Puerto Madero, which even boasts a bridge by the Spanish architect Santiago Caltrava.
If you aren’t ready to collapse into your opulent suite after dinner, a plethora of nightlife awaits. No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without an evening of tango, the sensual musical and dance tradition that began in the slums and brothels of the city. Originally considered a form of low-class debauchery, it gained international acclaim when singer Carlos Gardel toured Europe and won even the most aristocratic hearts. Opera connoisseurs will know that the famous Colon Theater has some of the best acoustics in the world, while those with a bit of Latin blood can don their black pants — preferably several sizes too small — and experience a different kind of sound revolution at Opera Bay. The hottest club in Puerto Madero, it boasts five dance floors and an impeccably jet set clientele. Fellows, be sure to work on your piropos (pick-up lines) beforehand, since they are essential to successful integration. If you need to loosen your tongue a bit, Argentine vineyards such as Catena Zapata, Escorihuela, and Terrazas are winning worldwide recognition.
Buenos Aires isn’t just about bacchanalian delights, however; a vibrant cultural scene permeates the city. Begin with the remarkable MALBA, which showcases a menagerie of Latin-American art, before heading to the lovely Decorative Arts museum. Gallery fiends will encounter plenty of alluring spaces to peruse, and antique lovers will adore the narrow streets of San Telmo, which are a veritable treasure cove, especially on Sundays.
Sophisticated sports fans can don their whites for a day of equestrian delights at the Hippodrome or an outing to watch polo — the national sport, as well as an elite social event. However, for a glimpse of insight into mainstream South American mentality, a visit to one of the hallowed fútbol fields is a must. Boca Juniors and River Plate are the two main rival teams, and a match between them combines all the elements of a carnival and a street fight, with the results affecting the national psyche to an alarming degree.
Call me a Porteña, but I can’t imagine getting bored in BA. If you do have more than a long weekend, however, the rest of the country is a wonderland of natural attractions — from the Salt Flats in the North to the wilds of Patagonia in the South; from the verdant Mendocino vineyards to the vast traditional estançias (ranches); from the most spectacular glacier in the world (the Perito Moreno) to the magnificent lguazú Falls, which inspired Eleanor Roosevelt to exclaim, “Poor Niagara!”
You won’t find the Eiffel Tower in Argentina. But after your first unabashedly epicurean evening of Malbec wine and tango, you probably wouldn’t feel like climbing all those steps anyway.
British Airways, Alitalia and Lufthansa fly to Buenos Aires (all with connections) for between Rs 65,000 and Rs 80,000 including taxes (source: Trans India Holidays, 011-29234617, www.transindiaholidays.com)
Buenos Aires travel guide:
Grab a Guia T, one of the handy guides sold on every street corner, and use it to navigate the extensive subway, bus and train system. Walking is also easy and enjoyable. Taxis are cheap, but make sure you have change—and a map (otherwise you may get cheated).
Where to stay:
The Alvear Palace (starting at US $550 + tax; +54-11-4808-2100, www.alvearpalace.com) is the grandest and most famous of the Buenos Aires hotels, located in posh Recoleta. Trendsetters should choose Philippe Starck’s Faena (starting at US $500 + tax; 4010-9000, www.faenahotelanduniverse.com, built in the less central but up-and-coming Puerto Madero neighbourhood. The Four Seasons (starting at $310US + tax; 4321-1200, www.fourseasons.com/buenosaires) has huge rooms and a fabulous pool. Another option is the more economical Hotel BoBo (starting at $110 + tax; 4774-0505, www.bobohotel.com), which is trendy in its own right, and is located in the heart of Palermo, amid scores of designer restaurants, bars and shops.
What to see & do:
Metro or walk to San Telmo on a Sunday to catch the antiques market at its height, complete with street performers amid the Spanish-style architecture.
Take a day out to enjoy the museums and galleries of Buenos Aires: the MALBA (www.malba.org.ar/web; open every day except Tuesday, 12-8pm), the Decorative Arts Museum (www.mnad.org; open every day except Sunday and Monday, 2-7pm), the Bellas Artes or Fine Arts Museum (www.mnba.org.ar; open Tuesday-Friday, 12.30-7.30pm and weekends 9.30am-7.30pm), and the galleries of the Recoleta neighbourhood.
Visit the Palermo Soho area and fill your shopping bags with fashionable clothing and the latest in decoration items. Then take a rest in the inviting nearby parks, and be sure to visit the Rosedal (the famous rose garden). If you have children, the Palermo zoo
(www.zoobuenosaires.com.ar) is a must.
Tour the highlights of the historic city — the Casa Rosada or ‘Pink House’ where the president lives; the stunning above-ground Recoleta Cemetery (make a bet to see who can find Eva Peron’s grave first); the colourful (if overly touristy) Caminito in La Boca.
Take a commuter train from the central Retiro station to the Tigre river delta and hop on a local boat for a leisurely ride down the impressive Rio de la Plata. Check out the bustling fruit market while you are there.
Experience a football game at either the Boca Juniors or the River Plate stadium (games are played throughout the year), or, for a more sophisticated crowd, see polo (in November and December) at the Palermo venue. Tickets are available at the stadiums and the polo field beforehand, or ask the concierge at any major hotel.
Marvel at the acoustics of the world-class Colon Theater
(www.teatrocolon.org.ar, performances March-December). A guided tour is fascinating as well, but reserve ahead for your place.
Tango, tango, tango. For daytime entertainment, you can check the schedule at the Café Tortoni (www.cafetortoni.com.ar). For an evening show, go online and make a reservation at the classy Esquina Gardel (www.esquinacarlosgardel.com.ar). The ‘VIP’ section affords better views...and champagne!
Go beyond the city limits and spend a day with the gauchos (Argentine cowboys) at one of the famous estançias (ranches) an hour from the capital. Enjoy entertainment, delicious food, horseback riding, and relaxation. Note: Meat is a big part of the menu, so vegetarians beware (www.estanciaelombu.com, +54-11-4737-0436).
Where & what to eat and drink:
Argentines are avowed carnivores; if you do eat meat, this is the place to indulge. However, there are plenty of other specialities that vegetarians will enjoy, such as pastas, pizzas, migas (very thin sandwiches that can be toasted or plain) and empanadas (salty bread pastries) that can be filled with veggies, cheese, or meat. Just be sure to make it very clear to the waiter if you are vegetarian!
Those with a sweet tooth shouldn’t miss the medialunas (croissants), the alfajor cookies, and dulce de leche, a sweet caramel sauce that tastes delicious on just about anything. The adventurous souls can try the maté (bitter tea-like drink).
Restaurants abound, but a few suggestions are Sotto Voce for incredible Italian, Sushi Club for fresh fish, and Cabaña las Lilas for the most mouth-watering steaks. The Palermo district hosts many favourites, among them the uber-hip Casa Cruz (international), Cluny for French fare, and Bar 6 for a fun mix of drinks, snacks, and atmosphere. Tip: Make reservations! The information for all these restaurants (and many more) can be found on the extremely useful Guia Oleo (www.guiaoleo.com.ar).
For cocktails with the beautiful people, try the Faena (see ‘Where to Stay’ section) or Milion (located in the Recoleta area at Parana 1048, open every night). Popular areas with multiple bars include Plaza Serrano in Palermo and Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo. After hours, you can head to Opera Bay or Asia de Cuba in Puerto Madero, where a younger crowd dances the night away. You’ll need to dress up to get in!
Don’t leave Argentina without some of their excellent wines: if you can’t make the trip to the wine region of Mendoza, try the excellent shop Winery
(www.winery.com.ar,multiplelocations) to pick up your favorite Malbec or Torrontés — both national specialities. A few brands to try are Catena Zapata, Terrazas, and Escorihuela. Buen provecho!
Those who want to travel like maharajahs should contact the superb luxury travel boutique Blue Parallel (+1-301-960-4449; www.blueparallel.com) for a private, all-inclusive, tailor-made vacation. Once you step off the plane in Buenos Aires, they’ll take care of you as if you were Mittal himself.