South American travel: Evita’s place

Buenos Aires is madly romantic—and these days insanely cheap, too.



From the February 2008 issue of the magazine.


Buenos Aire s has the grand boulevards of Paris, the buzz of New York, the sizzle of Rome. But unlike those other cities, Argentina’s capital holds one other distinction—it may be the best travel deal in the world right now.

My husband and I feasted on stuffed squid, pasta, and a fine bottle of Malbec at Broccolino, an Italian restaurant in the centre of Buenos Aires. The bill came to $20.

We strolled back to the Promenade Hotel, a basic but comfortable hostelry. Our air-conditioned room came equipped with a hair dryer, TV and phone—all for $50 per night, including free Internet access and a continental breakfast.

If you’ve ever thought about visiting “BA ” now’s the time. Following a 70% devaluation of the Argentine peso in 2002, Buenos Aires is a budget traveler’s delight. You can spend a day feasting on the world’s best beef, exploring the tango, and following in Evita Perón’s footsteps, all for less than it would cost you for a nice dinner back in Canada.

I recommend you start your exploration of this vibrant city at its heart—the Plaza de Mayo. If you’ve seen the movie Evita, you will recognize La Casa Rosada. Evita stood on the balcony of this pink palace as she delivered her speeches to cheering crowds below.

The palace is surrounded by grand architecture: the basilica, the national bank, the congress building and the municipal museum. Gawk at these neo-classical masterpieces, then, when it’s time for a coffee break, do as the locals do and enjoy a java jolt and pastry at Café Tortoni. Founded in 1858, the café has provided a second home to many Argentine writers and artists. You’ll sip your coffee amid the café’s dark wood paneling, sepia photographs and yellowing marble countertops.

Next door, climb to the second floor of the National Academy of Tango. Packed to the rafters with dancers’ costumes, shoes and photos, it’s a celebration of BA ’s longest- lasting popular art form. You might even catch tango students strutting their stuff on the polished wooden floors.

If you want to take a more active role, visit the Tango Brujo dance school. The ground floor sells books, CDs, shoes and costumes; upstairs you can enjoy an hour-and-a-half lesson for only $3. I convinced my husband to give it a whirl, but after 20 minutes of stepping on each other’s toes, we slipped out.

We recovered from our exertions with a walk through the San Telmo district, chock-a-block with cobblestoned streets and colonial mansions. This neighborhood was home to BA ’s elite until the 1870s, when yellow fever sent the well-todo residents fleeing north. Immigrants moved in and the mansions turned into tenements. Today San Telmo is a magnet for artists and musicians: BA ’s version of Greenwich Village. Try to visit on Sunday when Plaza Dorrego becomes a flea market. The streets are filled with antique shops, tango bars and cafés. And don’t miss the Bar Federal, a vintage hangout with a long oak bar decorated with Art Nouveau stained glass. A feast of antipasto, followed by turkey ravioli, will set you back about $8 for two.

No visit to BA would be complete without a touch of Evita—or, to use her full name, Eva Duarte Perón. As a young actress, she caught the eye of General Juan Perón, later the president of Argentina. She married Perón and became a dominating figure in the country’s politics before dying of cancer in 1952 at only 33. More than half a century after her death, the debate about her legacy is still raw: some call her a saint, others a social-climbing tart. The Evita Museum, housed in a mansion that Evita turned into a shelter for single mothers, portrays its founder as a humanitarian heroine. Propaganda or not, the museum is worth a visit for the history lesson alone.

You can pay your personal respects to Argentina’s former first lady by visiting her remains in the Familia Duarte mausoleum (number 57), located in Recoleta, BA ’s poshest neighbourhood. The shady boulevards are lined with Belle-Époque buildings, reminiscent of Paris’s Champs-Élysées. Afterwards, drop by the Alvear Palace Hotel. Its guest list includes Antonio Banderas, Robert Duvall and Donatella Versace. Who knows? You might get lucky and run into Antonio in the hotel’s L’Orangerie, a posh restaurant where the waiters wear red blazers and white gloves. Enjoying a traditional high tea in these luxurious surroundings is a splurge by Argentine standards at $20 per person.

Just make sure you leave room for dinner. Argentina boasts the best beef in the world. While North American cattle are pumped with hormones and marbled with fat, Argentina’s cows are leaner, sweeter and chewier because they range freely on the pampas, eating grass.

Most guidebooks will tell you that BA ’s prima steakhouse is Cabaña las Lilas. I had lofty expectations but when my lomo (baby beef) arrived, it was tough. However, we found carnivore nirvana just around the corner from our hotel at Las Nazarenas, where the meat sizzles on an asador (wood fire barbecue pit). The 12-page menu starts with an anatomical drawing of a cow showing the various cuts of beef. Flaky empanadas, mixed salad, Flintstone-sized T-bones, crispy fries and a fine red Malbec came to $40 for the two of us.


Tango lesson: A few simple steps to navigating a sultry city

Getting Around: Do not attempt to drive a car in BA . The traffic is crazy. Instead, use the subway and bus system—both are fast and cheap. Taxis are also plentiful and a bargain, but some literally stick up tourists, so call a radio taxi in advance and don’t take one off the street. For sightseeing, ask your hotel to arrange for a car and driver, called a remise.

Safety: BA has its share of pickpockets. Don’t flaunt your expensive jewelry or cameras and be prudent about where you carry your money and credit cards.

Starting points: Promenade Hotel won’t win design awards, but offers friendly, inexpensive accommodation in the centre of the city. The Evita Museum pays homage to the city’s most famous resident. Las Nazarenas serves up huge—and delicious—steaks. Dance it all off at the Tango Brujo dance school.

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