Buenos Aires is Back
Buenos Aires, Argentina
From three blocks away, I could already hear the music, the sharp beats and swelling strings of tango filling the air. All around me, dozens of couples danced in the streets, while hundreds of fellow porteÃ±os â€” residents of Buenos Aires â€” watched. On the second to last day of the annual Buenos Aires Tango Festival, these three blocks of Avenida Roque SÃ¡enz PeÃ±a had been turned into a giant open-air milonga (tango dance hall) for the night. Though Argentina is still dealing with the aftermath of its 2001 currency crisis, you would never know it from the porteÃ±o couples absorbed in their intimate, passionate dance.
Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina but more importantly its heart and soul, suffered badly during the years of crisis. But the city persevered, and though overall unemployment remains high, Argentina has found a new confidence after several years of rapid economic growth (around 9% per year). (In January it repaid its loans from the International Monetary Fund early, ending years of clashes with the IMF and proceeding on its own without the international organization’s help.) This resilient spirit was on full display throughout Buenos Aires, from its world-famous steakhouses and European-style cafes to its soccer stadiums and, as always, in the tango.
My friends and I had arrived in Buenos Aires on a beautiful late summer day, with plentiful sunshine and a light, cool breeze. After checking into the Hotel Castelar, a historic and charming if slightly aging hotel in the downtown Congreso district, we strolled along Avenida de Mayo, a tree-lined boulevard linking the Palacio del Congreso â€” the national legislature â€” on one end with the Casa Rosada â€” the offices of Argentine President Nestor Kirchner â€” on the other end.
Buenos Aires is often called the “Paris of South America,” and lives up to that billing. 19th century European-style buildings lined both sides of Avenida de Mayo and other major streets, and even the people themselves, descended mostly from Italian and Spanish immigrants, are more reminiscent of Europe than South America. CafÃ© Tortoni, where we stopped for lunch, fit this mold with its dark wood and tall columns, and an art nouveau influence on the artwork and lamps. Even knowing about Buenos Aires’ high rate of unemployment, it just feels like a rich city.
After lunch we headed to Avenida Florida, a narrow pedestrian thoroughfare crammed with shops and shoppers. Its range of stores draws both locals and tourists, selling everything from sports gear, leather jackets, and electronics to designer fashions at the upscale Galerias Pacifico at the north end of the avenue.
Buenos Aires is best known as home to the tango. One of the most dramatic and sensual of all partner dances, it was shunned as vulgar when it first became popular in the 1880s, but gradually found acceptance and was later adopted as the national dance of Argentina. When dancing tango, the man and the woman stand close together, their bodies rigidly straight, their faces nearly touching. Even without words, passion is unmistakable in the way they look at one another, and in the sharp, smooth turns, kicks, and dips that make up the dance.
Every year in late February and early March the city holds the Festival de Tango, one of the world’s largest tango events â€” this year 175,000 people attended ten days of performances and classes throughout the city’s milongas, plazas, and performing arts venues.
“It’s like a boom,” explained Carolina Ghio, one of the festival’s production team members. Though it was “a thing for older people years ago…now it’s a trend, and teenagers are paying more attention,” making it a dance for all ages â€” the dancers at Avenida Roque SÃ¡enz PeÃ±a ranged from older couples with decades of tango experience to teenagers still learning its complicated steps. Nearby, hundreds of spectators watched approvingly, singing along with famous tango singers like Alberto PodestÃ¡, who set the mood along with the other strings, piano, and accordion players on stage.
After the tango, Argentina is best known for its excellent beef. Buenos Aires faces the Atlantic Ocean, at the eastern edge of grassy plains known as pampas that stretch hundreds of miles inland. The pampas are ideal for raising cattle, and their abundance means that almost all cattle in Argentina are free-range and, therefore, delicious.
We had dinner at La CabaÃ±a, a restaurant whose fine steaks are unfortunately offset by its extremely high, tourist-oriented prices. (The exchange rate crashed from one peso per dollar to three pesos per dollar during the currency crisis, so you hardly ever need to pay more than $5-$10 for a good steak dinner. The city is definitely a great choice for travelers who want to live and eat well on a budget.)
A better option is Desnivel, a typical Buenos Aires parrilla (grill) in the charming San Telmo neighborhood. We feasted here the next day on flavorful chorizo sausage, an unusually good tortilla espanola (Spanish omelette), tender porterhouse steak, and ribs, plus salad, beer and soda, for well less than $10 per person.
A popular neighborhood restaurant, it is warm and friendly inside â€” the colorful artwork on the walls, a large Argentine flag draped near the entryway and two large, enticing grills lining the corridors create an unpretentious and welcoming atmosphere. Even the fact that the tables were packed close felt right, evoking more a reunion of old friends than a cluttered eatery.
Buenos Aires is a city of neighborhoods, like many other big cities, and better yet, most of them are walkable and not far from downtown.
San Telmo was one of our favorites. Away from the hustle of downtown, San Telmo retains a more traditional feel with its cobblestone streets and two- or three-story European-style buildings, most with balconies providing perches for potted plants enjoying the cloudless, sunny day.
Every Sunday, San Telmo’s central Plaza Dorrego hosts the Feria de San Telmo, a popular flea market. Streets are closed to cars, and are taken over by juice vendors, human statues and musicians entertaining the steady stream of visitors. In Plaza Dorrego itself are dozens of booths where merchants sell antiques and trinkets like old porcelain, jewelry and silverware â€” and probably a good bit of junk as well.
The elegant Recoleta neighborhood houses Buenos Aires’ elite. Indeed, looking at some of the stately facades and exclusive retailers, you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually in Paris.
Recoleta is also home to the city’s most famous tourist attraction, the Cemeterio de la Recoleta. The cemetery is a small city of mausoleums paying homage to the Buenos Aires’ wealthiest and most powerful families. Dozens of stray cats wander among the grand, sometimes beautiful tombs, including that of the cemetery’s most famous occupant, Evita â€” the wife of President Juan Peron and a still a revered symbol of Argentina.
Other interesting neighborhoods are Puerto Madero, home to new and trendy hotels and restaurants in the redeveloped port area, and Palermo, a large area known for its parks, shops and restaurants.
“Justicia!” (“Justice!”) demanded the small group of protestors marching in the Plaza de Mayo.
Argentina’s postwar political history has been turbulent, and the past few years have been no different; as Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires has paid witness to the key events of this complicated history. The Plaza de Mayo area has been the epicenter, with the Casa Rosada on the plaza’s eastern end and key ministries housed nearby. Looming a little further away, too, is the Edificio Libertador, the headquarters of the military and the true center of power in Argentina during the decades of military dictatorship until the restoration of democracy in 1983.
Argentina’s most recent economic crisis started in 2001, when the fixed exchange rate of one peso to one dollar that had cured the hyperinflation of the 1980s became unsustainable. The government defaulted on its debt and abandoned the fixed exchange rate â€” the peso fell to three per dollar as the economy crashed, and unemployment rose as high as 20%. The economic pain, combined with the dramatic measures the government took in response, prompted hundreds of thousands to join protests in Plaza de Mayo and elsewhere.
Demonstrations criticizing Argentina’s political and economic woes have been and continue to be common in Buenos Aires â€” just off Plaza de Mayo, we saw another small group criticizing Anibal Ibarra, mayor of Buenos Aires during a nightclub fire that killed nearly 200 people. Recently, the protesters secured a notable victory â€” in March, an impeachment panel voted to remove Mayor Ibarra from office.
No doubt, economic and political challenges still weigh on the people of Buenos Aires â€” my friend Pablo Gentile, a native of the city, says that “it’s only a matter of time” before the next crisis, unless deeper reforms are made. Regardless, judging by the people that we talked to, porteÃ±os will surely carry through with perseverance, and, as always, with style.