Every time I travel, I often have a hard time choosing my favorite place. And now I have to add Buenos Aires 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.” And in some of the more residential neighborhoods warehouses are being rehabbed into loft apartments and young urbanites chat over café con leche. It’s springtime here and the weather is perfect—sunny, warm, and 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, if not one of the world’s. But no mas. In 2001, all hell broke loose and the local currency, 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 coming in and out of power in only 10 days. Soon bank accounts were frozen and thousands of people saw their life savings disappear. It’s very sad for the people here, but an all out fiesta for the tourists who can now flock to the “Paris of South America” and enjoy all it has to offer and more. For example, a good steak dinner with wine here at a nice restaurant may cost you $10. The same steak in Chicago would be $50 and up.
I’m not much of a big shopper, especially when I’m traveling, but I couldn’t pass up some of the savings here. I’ve already purchased a few of the famous leather items. You know where there’s lots of steak—there’s got to be a lot of leather. I had a beautiful brown leather jacket quasi-custom made for me for $80 and bought a smart suede belt for $20. My friend Mark also had a leather jacket made for himself and bought a purse for his quasi-girlfriend. When he leaves he will take both jackets home to LA with him since I can’t really fit the jacket in my ‘world tour’ bag—it will have to hang in his closet until my return.
The most common phrase I heard in the dozens of leather shops along Calle Florida, the crowded pedestrian street, was “we eat the meat.” When asked about all this leather and the cows that are dying for it—that’s what three separate salesladies had said to me. I guess they’re right because I’ve never seen more steakhouses anywhere in my life. Moo.
This is a city of neighborhoods (like another cool little city I know) and we’ve already found our faves. Palermo Viejo is the hippest—with block after leafy block of boutiques and bars filled with hipster and sidewalks filled with young kissing couples and other dog walking residents. This is where I’d love to live. In fact, we already looked at several new condos going up in the hood. With the recent economic crisis, we’ve learned that real estate is also a prime investment right now. Everywhere we looked were cranes and new construction of clean, very modern looking apartment buildings. The Old Palermo neighborhood is separated into two smaller enclaves—Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho. And each one lives up to its name. There are lots of film production companies and TV stations in one area and the other is filled with cute trendy boutiques and ethnic restaurants and bars. Recoleta is the ‘hood of the rich. It is the Gold Coast of Buenos Aires, with all the designer shops lining Alvear Street where the ‘ladies who lunch’ peruse the racks of designer everything. It is also home to Evita where she peacefully rests 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. It originally was full of the city’s wealthy, until a few little nasty diseases like Cholera and Yellow Fever scared them away. Now, it’s having resurgence and is artsy and cool and full of young people. It’s kind of like Greenwich Village in NYC or Chicago’s Wicker Park. Puerto Madero is the old port that is currently being renovated like waterfronts in other cities. Old hulking brick warehouses are now cool, expensive lofty condos. And tons of restaurants are opening there giving folks a place to stroll on the water after work. Farther down 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 Bombonera. 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 all about these hoods—including a few interesting tidbits I have to pass on:
- The Tango was originally a dance between two men ‘fighting’ over a prostitute. Then this dirty, dirty little dance transformed into the men just dancing with the prostitute. And of course, today, it’s been ‘re-released’ as a classy, European art form…little do they know…
- 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 actually a kind of landfill. It was created when the city created 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. Today someone had the bright idea to plant trees and grass and make the place a peaceful park and wildlife reserve. Odd and cool at the same time.
- We also learned of some recent tragic times for Buenos Aires. Like many of its Latin American counterparts, the government here has suffered some truly dreadful and embarrassing moments. From about 1976 to 1982 Argentina was under Military rule. This government decided to ‘do away’ with many young liberals who spoke out against it. In this time more than 30,000 people (mostly college-age) were captured, tortured, and probably killed never to be heard from again. And, again, this was just about 20 years ago. Justice was never served and just now the current president is attempting to put the military leaders from that time on trial, but just three weeks before we arrived, a high-ranking officer with lots of information, named Jose Lopez, had 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.
But from visiting here today you would never know about some of the political and economic issues in the country’s past. The city folk are laughing, spending, and drinking coffee and their favorite Malbec wine, enjoying life to the fullest. Being here among all this coolness and life got me thinking about how life goes on for so many people everywhere all over the world. While we are in our little lives back in the States, all these folks have everything they need here in the Southern Hemisphere and have nothing to do with New York or Chicago or London. You just don’t hear too many people mention Buenos Aires as much as European capitals, but it is almost exactly the same and may even be cooler.