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february 10, 2005 -> buenos aires: europe on a shoestring 

With one US Dollar buying 0.53 British Pounds and 0.77 Euros, a European vacation today is more expensive than it has ever been.  Yet millions of Americans continue to fly to London, Paris, and Rome, where they will spend thousands of dollars to join crowds of their fellow Americans visiting the same sites.  I have a timely suggestion: if interesting history, cultural experiences, great wines, fine food and excellent nightlife are what you are after, forget Europe and head to Buenos Aires, where one Dollar buys 3 Pesos and 25 Dollars gets you an excellent dinner for two, including a bottle of Argentine red. 

Buenos Aires is South America's most sophisticated city.  Compared to naturally beautiful, uninhibited, egalitarian Rio – admittedly - Buenos Aires feels staid and stuck-up.  The national dances provide a perfect analogy for the two cities: while carioca hips shake dangerously to the samba, porteños (the people of Buenos Aires) love the tango, a beautiful yet lugubrious dance performed by an unsmiling couple.  In Rio, you can go almost anywhere in your beach clothes, while we often felt underdressed in Buenos Aires.  Short-term visitors to Buenos Aires often comment that is “just another city,” while Rio has “something special.”  That may be the case, but we still found ourselves falling in love with the city.  It was a bit snobbish, but certainly no more so than New York or Paris!   

Buenos Aires is short on conventional tourist draw-cards: no Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Sugar Loaf, Golden Gate Bridge etc.  The city has no beaches; one has to visit the redeveloped Puerto Madero district to see the water.  Depressingly, one of Buenos Aires' most famous sites is a tomb.  Nearly everyone visits Eva Peron's final resting place in the fantastic Recoleta cemetery, where Argentina's rich, famous, and infamous dead continue to flaunt their wealth in elegant marble and granite mausoleums.  (Ironically, Eva had railed against the rich during her lifetime, and threatened to burn down nearby Barrio Norte.)  The Plaza de Mayo is the heart of the capital and has witnessed some of the most important moments in Argentine history – such as the huge demonstration that brought Juan Peron back from a brief period of exile in 1945 – but apart from the confection-like Casa Rosada (Pink House), the square holds little appeal for non-history buffs.  There is the Caminito, a tango tourist trap in the poor barrio of La Boca, and the vertiginous football stadium of the world-famous Boca Juniors nearby.  There are several weekly street markets in various neighborhoods.  But in general, you have to love cities to love Buenos Aires.

We were lucky enough to experience Buenos Aires with the help of a porteño (the name given to Buenos Aires' citizens – meaning “people of the port.”)  Rodrigo was dating Liz, a Chinese-Australian who Nori had met in Shanghai.  Liz had just moved to Buenos Aires – to hang out and study Spanish - while they applied for Rodrigo's Australian work visa.  He was an excellent example of Argentina's problems: despite being a highly-trained dentist, he earned peanuts, and couldn't wait to get to a country that valued his skills.  (We valued his skills: Nori got a filling and I got a cleaning!)  Rodrigo took us to a series of very local parrillas, where we dined on fantastic lomos (beef loin) and other cuts of more dubious origins.  He hated porteño snobbishness.  “In Buenos Aires, there are snob barrios, snob shops, snob parrillas and even snob heladerias (ice cream parlours.)” 

An old joke says that “Argentines are Spanish-speaking Italians who want to be English.”  The Italian influence is obvious on the streets of Buenos Aires; the people are attractive and famously vain.  More than half of the young men had long hair and image-enhancing goatees or stubble, and the women are renowned for boob-jobs and face-lifts.  Like older Italian women, Buenos Aires women refuse to age gracefully.  Every day we saw dozens of preternaturally tan older women, their faces kept taut by surgery, their eyebrows meticulously plucked, their eyes and lips caked with cosmetics.  One particularly scary example was a 40-something blonde with huge breasts and a face like a mannequin; a mix between Joan Collins and Pamela Anderson.  “Try my bingo.  It's the easiest!” she urged from posters adorning lottery outlets and convenience stores.

We found a furnished apartment in a modern building in Palermo – one of Buenos Aires' swankiest barrios – for US$25 a night.  Our plan was spend a week working on the website and doing research for the rest of the trip.  We did manage to get a lot of work done, but we kept getting distracted by Buenos Aires' charms.  With fine wines, excellent food, a dialect of Spanish (Castiliano) that sounds pleasantly French, yuppie-masquerading-as-bohemian neighborhoods such as Palermo, and montones (heaps) of style, one could easily imagine oneself in Soho in New York or Knotting Hill in London.  A walk from the Plaza de Mayo to the Palace of Congress takes the visitor past some of the city's most beautiful buildings and monuments – though nearly all of them are defaced by political graffiti.  The shopping malls and high-end shops of Recoleta, Palermo, and Barrio Norte are a welcome balm for backpackers exhausted from months of travel.  There are trendy cafes, awesome book stores and quirky shops.  Nowhere else in South America can one enjoy the pleasures of the big city in such a safe – and cheap – environment.