When I travel, I have a hard time choosing my favorite place. Now I have to add Buenos Aires, Argentina, to that ever expanding list of places that I must return to. Buenos Aires is an uber cosmopolitan city full of life, grand European architecture and cheap things. Including its sprawling suburbs, this huge city is home to 13 million porteños (the term for the port city dwellers). In the center it is busy and loud with shoppers and well-dressed workers scurrying about while persistent leather salesmen try to persuade you to come into their store because “it’s the best quality, amigo". In some of the more residential neighborhoods, warehouses are being rehabbed into loft apartments, young urbanites chat over café con leche. It’s springtime, the weather is perfect – sunny, warm – the lilac-like scent of the purple flowering Jacaranda trees permeates the air.
Up until the economic crisis a few years ago, Buenos Aires was Latin America’s most expensive city. In 2001, the Argentinean peso fell to a third of its former value and has pretty much stayed there. The subsequent political instability led to four presidents in and out of power in only 10 days. Bank accounts were frozen, thousands of people saw their life savings disappear. This is fiesta for the tourists who flock to the “Paris of South America”. A good steak dinner at an upscale restaurant may cost $10.00. The same steak in Chicago would be $40.00 and up.
I’m not much of a shopper, but I couldn’t pass up the savings on the famous leather items. The most common phrase I heard in the leather shops along Calle Florida, the crowded pedestrian street, was “we eat the meat". When asked about the leather and the cows that are dying for it, three separate sales ladies made the same statement. They’re right because I’ve never seen more steakhouses anywhere in my life. Moo.
Buenos Aires is a city of neighborhoods. Palermo Viejo is the hippest – with block after leafy block of boutiques and bars filled with hipsters, young kissing couples and dog-walking residents. This is where I’d like to live. I looked at several new condominiums in the hood. With the recent economic crisis, real estate is a prime investment. We saw cranes, construction everywhere.
The Old Palermo neighborhood is separated into two smaller enclaves – Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho. Each one lives up to its name. There are lots of film production companies and television stations in one area; the other area is filled with trendy boutiques, ethnic restaurants and bars.
Recoleta is the hood of the rich, the Gold Coast of Buenos Aires. It is also home to Evita, resting peacefully in the grand Recoleta Cemetery. It looks like its own mini-city, with block after block of marble and granite mausoleums.
San Telmo is a beautiful old neighborhood with cobblestone streets. Originally it was wealthy, until a few nasty diseases scared the rich away. It’s having a resurgence – artsy, full of young people. It’s similar to New York's Greenwich Village or Chicago’s Wicker Park.
The old port is currently being renovated like waterfronts in other cities. Old hulking brick warehouses are now cool with expensive lofty condos. Lots of restaurants are opening there giving folks a place to stroll along the water after work.
Farther south on the water is scruffy blue-collar, La Boca, home to many Italian immigrants and the world famous fútbol (soccer) team, La Boca Juniors and their stadium, La Bombanera. The steep concrete mass literally shakes during games, as the fans go crazy stamping their feet. We visited La Boca during a rowdy Sunday home game and could hear the chants from blocks away, “Boca! Boca! Boca!” It turns out that not only was national soccer hero, Diego Maradona, at the game, but so were the visiting Bush daughters.
During a fun four-hour bike tour of the city, we learned a few interesting tidbits I have to pass on.
- The Tango, originally a dance done by a man and his prostitute, is transformed today as a classy, European art form.
- The Ecological Reserve and beach on the Riverfront (Buenos Aires sits on the banks of this wide river that empties into the Atlantic Ocean and separates the city with the southern coast of Uruguay) is a landfill. It was created when the city built Avenida 9 de Julio – the so called widest street in the world. They actually tore down several beautiful buildings to make this street and dumped the building "chunks" here. Someone had the idea to plant trees and grass and to make the place a peaceful park and wildlife reserve – odd and cool at the same time.
Buenos Aires has had its share of recent tragedies. As with many of its Latin American counterparts, the government has suffered some dreadful and embarrassing moments. From about 1976 to 1982, Argentina was under military rule. The government decided to eliminate many young liberals who spoke out against it. More than 30,000 people (mostly college age) were captured, tortured and probably killed – just 20 years ago. Justice was never served. The current president is attempting to put the military leaders from that time on trial, but three weeks before our arrival, a high-ranking officer who had information vanished. Every Thursday the mothers of the “disappeared ones” march on Plaza de Mayo in hopes of finding their sons who have now been missing for more than 20 years. Only 80 bodies were said to have been recovered.
You would never know about some of the political and economic issues in the country’s past when visiting today. City folks laugh, spend, drink coffee and their favorite Malbec wine. Being here got me thinking about how life goes on for many people everywhere.
While we live our lives in the States, these folks are living theirs here, in the Southern Hemisphere. They have little to do with New York, Chicago or London. You don’t hear many people mentioning Buenos Aires as much as European capitals, but it is almost exactly the same and may even be cooler.
Read more Lisa Lubin's travels here.