At my favourite steakhouse, nothing much seemed to have changed. The maitre d’ was as convivial as ever and the tira de asado (beef of the rib) was charred to perfection. Extended families flooded in to fill the tables, and groups of friends celebrated birthdays and bachelorhood in style. My friend and I indulged in a round of reserve malbec wines, Don Pedros (ice cream and whisky desserts), coffees and local cognacs.
But the surprise arrived with la cuenta – the bill: it was less than ARG$100 (£20) for two. When I’d lived in the city during the 1990s, such a spread would have cost three times as much. But now, five years after Argentina’s economic meltdown, things were very different.
I watched a late-night, top-notch tango show at the dusty but still grand Confiteria Ideal for £2. Soaking up the ancient atmosphere, with a lone pair of dancers swirling under the lights, I felt like I was on a film set.
Then, ordering drinks at the Faena hotel, I was set to ask for two beers but changed my mind. Well, why not drink champagne – albeit champaña from Mendoza rather than the French original – when it’s less than £10 a bottle?
Buenos Aires always makes me feel I’m getting away with something – it shares out its pleasures liberally and with gusto. But on this visit, in March 2006, I realised it was time to explore the budget side of a metropolis that has always prided itself on its European airs, Latino lifestyle and distinctively Argentine appetite for hedonism.
It soon became clear that, even among the elegant boulevards of the northern suburbs and the faded grandeur of the historic south, you can indulge in a bit of Latin American decadence without breaking the bank.
Buenos Aires is famous for its nightlife, but the barrio of Recoleta is gorgeous in the morning – palaces, penthouses and art galleries languish among the rolling lawns and leafy plazas.
A celebrated social hub and ideal spot for café con leche and medialunas (sweet buttery croissants) is La Biela, the official café of the neighbourhood’s richest, with its outdoor terrace shaded by a centenarian rubber tree. Priests come and go at the Pilar church opposite, janitors polish the marble pavements and dog-walkers emerge from the lobbies of high-rise blocks with their webs of pedigree pooches.
From La Biela you can set off on a walking route through the north of the city towards Palermo, starting just two blocks away with the city’s famed necropolis, the Cementerio de la Recoleta. If you can make it before 10am you should avoid running into funerals and you’ll also beat the sweltering noonday sun. A map points out the angel-clad mausoleums of national heroes such as Manuel Dorrego and Juan Lavalle. Evita’s here too, as well as poignant anonymous graves, the piles of rustic rocks or subtle statues for loved ones.
If Recoleta is the wealthiest barrio, Palermo is the most iconic. It has the grandiose monuments, the biggest park in the city, the polo ground, the racecourse, the Rural (where the annual agro-fair is held every July) and the hippest bars and eateries in Argentina.
The Avenidas del Libertador and Figueroa Alcorta are lined with museums, but the cool, understated MALBA building is the one not to miss (entrance is just ARG$10/£2). Housing 20th-century art from across Latin America, the museum is just the right size for a couple of hours of slow browsing. There are seminal works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Tarsila do Amaral, but to get an angle on this city the one to study is Antonio Berni. His magical collages portray dockworkers and slum-dwellers beneath the starry pampas skies that illuminate their lives.
Palermo is about horticulture as much as culture. It has Japanese gardens, botanical gardens, rose gardens and Andalucían gardens, and while these are preened along semi-formal lines, the vast Parque de Palermo (aka 3 de Febrero) remains a patch of pampas in the city, with the calls of ovenbirds, rufous-collared sparrows and kiskadees echoing from the ombú trees and jacarandas. Take a pedalo or rowing boat onto the lake and you quickly drift away from a sense of the city. There are also friendly old señores touting carriage-rides – for ARG$40 (£8) they’ll trot you round the park and show you the fountains and boulevards that made Buenos Aires the envy of European urbanites a century ago.
So far you’ll be spending pennies, if anything at all, but it’s time to indulge in a spot of lunch. Since the mid-90s gastronomy has boomed in BA, and Palermo is the epicurean epicentre. Take a cab (they’re very cheap) to Palermo Viejo’s Plaza Cortázar and you’ll be spoilt for choice. Desde el Alma serves a stunning malbec paté and slow-braised lamb. The weekday menu starts at about £5. Always buy reserve wines wherever you dine; in the UK these superior vintages usually cost £10-plus, but even in BA’s better restaurants you can get a good one for half that.
After lunch it’s worth taking a leisurely stroll. Palermo Viejo is famed as a nexus of small traders, ranging from handmade-paper shops to design markets that stock everything from postcards to placemats, leather sofas and mates (gourds for drinking the local green tea). Take a browse down calles Borges, Armenia and Malabia, looking out for local-label tango and folk CDs (about $15/£3 each) and the soaps, silver earrings and handicrafts sold by young artisan-hippies out on the pavements (weekends are best).
After ten years of gastronomic and retail reinvention, Palermo Viejo remains the hedonistic hub of Buenos Aires. You may even choose to sleep here now that fair-priced small hotels such as Malabia House, Bobo and Che Lulu have opened up around the barrio. But if you have chosen to stay downtown or in Recoleta, grab a cab and ask to be taken back via Once (pronounced on-say) and down Avenida Corrientes, just to remind yourself that this is Latin America: vibrant, chaotic, underdeveloped. If you have the energy, jump out at Plaza Once into the gaggle of street vendors, every single one of whom seems to be selling alarm clocks amid an ear-splitting cacophony of cumbia music and shrill beepings.
Go for cocktails at Milión, followed by dinner at Restó. Both are set in stately, Frenchified petit châteaux. Milión is a vibrant bar with marble stairways and leafy little nooks on an open-air patio,
and an exquisite restaurant filled with candles (mains from around ARG$15/£3).
Restó is actually housed inside the Argentinian Architecture Society’s HQ, so it’s little wonder that you find yourself sipping wine (uniquely in Buenos Aires, at Restó you can bring your own bottle) among the elegant arches of such a fine mansion.
The sur, or southside, of Buenos Aires is often vaunted as the authentic, hardcore district. The barrios of Constitución, La Boca, San Telmo and Barracas cluster around the port, football stadia, industrial estates and warehouses, and the railway terminal for southern Argentina.
Keep your pesos in your pockets along San Telmo’s strip of stores at the southern reaches of calle Defensa (there’s also a big fleamarket on Sundays on the Plaza Dorrego) unless you are confident with your haggling skills in this more touristy area of town. But rummaging is free and there’s some cheap kitsch souvenir material here: old gaucho posters and calendars, football memorabilia and Gardeliana – objects of desire linked to the image and memory of tango legend Carlos Gardel.
It’s hard to resist a browse around the covered market on Pasaje de la Defensa and a listen to the tinkling chandeliers handed down from a bourgeois BA of old in Galería 888.
It is also the best place to come hunting for tango, whether you want a lavish but solidly musical show at the now classic Bar Sur or El Viejo Almacén venues, or prefer a more intimate, stimulating set at the neighbourly Centro Cultural Torquato Tasso. Here you get a tango lesson, usually led by experienced, patient teachers who don’t complain when you step on their shiny shoes. The price for this is an absurdly low ARG$20 (£4) per hour.
Then you may get to see a major virtuoso such as Rodolfo Mederos or a hipster such as Daniel Melingo playing live for about ARG$25 (£5), while sipping on cheap house wine or even tucking into a hearty meal of steak and chips. After the gig there is usually a milonga (dance); this is open to all comers, and the regulars are often enviably talented duos who have been strutting and skipping for years.
The sur is the place for absorbing old BA. Its pleasures are not to be savoured through excessive shopping or dining, but by deconstructing its multiple layers. This is the ideal opportunity to organise a local English-speaking guide: let them lead you insightfully – and safely – through an area where tenements and former prisons sit back-to-back with gorgeous terraces and colonial churches, and where the poetry of patios and car-free BA, as celebrated in the early verses of Borges, can still be tapped. Café-bars such as El Británico and Bar Dorrego are dusty, dreamy and ideal for a cold beer.
Nearby are some of BA’s most intriguing sights, including El Zanjón, an archaeological museum-cum-event space that gives an X-ray of 300 years of city life in its walls, tunnels and treasure chest of unearthed objects: from French tiles to English tea services (admission ARG$20/£4). Nearby La Boca boasts Boca Juniors’ Bombonera (chocolate box) stadium at its heart and the adjoining museum of Pasión Boquense (Boca-fuelled passions).
To round off the tour, go to a parrilla (barbecue grill). There are several cheap and cheerful canteens on Defensa, but go round the corner to La Brigada and the meat will be leaner, the salad cleaner and the wine list more studied – expect to pay ARG$50 (£10). This is writer Tomás Eloy Martínez’s favourite steakhouse – the waiter may show you his signed book collection.
When to go: Buenos Aires is a year-round destination, although spring and autumn are the best times to visit with pleasant temperatures of around 20-25°C. Visit in February/March for the city’s annual tango festival (www.festivaldetango.gov.ar).
Getting around: Cabs are the easiest way to travel, and they’re dirt cheap. Buses are an experience and another bargain.Worst rip-offs: San Telmo antiques Overpriced, so avoid unless you’re an expert.Bus station crime Watch out for distracting questions and keep all valuable belongings close to you.
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