Buenos Aires tries to be the new Vancouver
I’ve just stepped in fresh dog shit, a bus has blasted me with exhaust, and I nearly sprained my ankle on a piece of broken sidewalk. And why won’t those damn hot Argentine men cruise me back?
At moments like these, it’s hard to believe that Buenos Aires bumped our darling Vancouver from its position as best city in the Americas in Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s annual reader survey last year.
But before we get our yoga panties in a twist, I think Vancouverites should check out the competition for themselves. So here I am in B.A. for a six-week visit to see if I agree with the survey’s results, based on its six stated criteria: ambiance, culture/sites, friendliness, lodging, restaurants, and shopping.
Ambiance Buenos Aires is often called the Paris of South America. After several weeks here, I’ve concluded that it ain’t Paris—it’s its own place, with a unique appearance and vibe. Granted, late-19th- and early-20th-century European architectural influences are everywhere.
My partner, Kevin, and I have rented an apartment in historic San Telmo. We chose this area because its ambiance is dramatically different from Vancouver’s; the closest comparison is sort of Gastown meets Commercial Drive. Many travellers prefer the wealthier Palermo and Recoleta areas (where some streets do echo those of Paris), but most of the tourist apartments in those areas seem to be in high-rises, just like at home.
Buenos Aires can’t touch Vancouver’s dramatic setting. B.A. doesn’t seem to celebrate its body of water, the Rió de la Plata. That’s changing in areas like Puerto Madero—B.A.’s Yaletown—where decades-old port equipment has been incorporated into a gentrifying landscape.
But B.A.’s café ambiance beats that of our coffee shops—there isn’t a Starbucks in sight. Almost every café has tables that spill out onto the sidewalk, all with waiter service. This laze-the-afternoon-away culture seems very civilized.
B.A.’s biggest ambiance problem is traffic noise. Muffler-free cars and belching buses don’t help.
Culture/Sites I expected that tango would be B.A.’s cliché, sort of like our inukshuk. But tango music is everywhere. Although a local tells me most Argentines don’t know how to tango, we constantly hear the music coming from residences and radios.
B.A.’s culture really shines in tango salons. Simply attending a tango dinner show or seeing a couple dance for tourists on the street isn’t enough; this is a part of the culture you need to try for yourself. There are loads of tango classes and dances—called milongas—throughout the city daily. Finding authentic spots is worth the effort.
Believe it or not, B.A. has two gay milongas, so Kevin and I took a gay tango lesson.
The San Telmo neighbourhood is tango’s birthplace, and a must-see area. Some building faí§ades date back 200 years. It’s a huge neighbourhood with both yuppies and paupers. On Sundays, an extremely popular street fair and antiques market literally fills entire streets. I could wander San Telmo for days, compared to hours in Gastown.
I’m not big on museums, but the Museo Evita (in Recoleta) kept my interest and helped me learn more about one of Argentina’s best-known figures, Eva Perón. After the museum, a visit to the Casa Rosada—Argentina’s presidential mansion—was even more interesting (but they wouldn’t let me sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from the balcony). The museum’s film about the madcap handling of Evita’s corpse makes a trip to the Recoleta Cemetery extra fascinating, although Evita’s family mausoleum is an also-ran compared to the mini cathedrals of other families that surround it.
Friendliness This is the most difficult aspect to compare, as relatively few Argentines speak English and my Spanish sucks. It’s usually too hard to have a conversation beyond the basics and thereby assess friendliness. But in situations where a lot of English is spoken, people are plenty friendly. Taxi drivers often try to chat, and our landlady is glad to explain the good and bad of her fast-changing neighbourhood. To truly make a judgment call, I need to learn better Spanish and come back for another visit.
Lodging In this category, B.A. really shines. Our one-bedroom, furnished apartment with weekly maid service costs the equivalent of $750 a month. The apartment is fascinating—it’s in a 100-year-old building, and is filled with contemporary furnishings. Its hardwood floors and 10-foot-high French doors have a magnificent patina, and exposed brick ceilings show its true character. Ours isn’t the only great deal; amazingly, we bumped into acquaintances from Vancouver who are renting a studio in swank Recoleta for $650 a month.
Condé Nast Traveler readers may spend more on lodging than we do, so I managed to swing a night as a guest of the hotel at the Faena Hotel and Universe to see what all the fuss is about. The Philippe Starck–designed property, and its service, rate six stars in my book. But the nearly $500-per-night cost seems disconnected from the local economic reality.
Restaurants If you are what you eat, Argentines are cows! Beef and dairy are the nation’s staples. Argentina’s cows spend their days on the way to my plate happier than most Canadian ones, as the cattle are said to wander the pesticide-free Pampas and few are feedlot-fattened. As the son of a cattle rancher, I’ve honestly never had meat to match the consistent, brilliant quality of Argentine beef—even that found in the cheaper restaurants here.
My favourite spot is DesNivel, where asador Hugo Portillo watches over his parrilla (grill) like a mother over her newborn. For just $7, he grills me a butter-soft tenderloin I couldn’t buy raw at Safeway for $15.
B.A. is filled with restaurants, but nearly all of them serve similar dishes of steak and/or pasta. The main spice is salt, and six weeks of it gets boring.
Argentina’s ice cream poses Vancouver’s a serious challenge, though, and I’d say that B.A. wins. Ice cream shops are everywhere, and the quality is consistently superb. My favourite spot boasts 13 flavours of chocolate alone.
B.A.’s food scene is slowly changing. Some restaurants are experimenting with traditional Argentine dishes, and with effort I have found a few spots that shake up the flavour, including La Carretería, whose excellent regional cuisine fits my budget.
Argentine food is excellent in quality, but lacking in variety. This one goes to Vancouver.
Shopping Before I left for Argentina, friends who went there several years ago asked me why I was even packing for my trip. “Buy everything new when you get there—it’s so cheap!” they advised.
This is no longer true. B.A.’s shopping is no big deal—all the major international brands are there, but prices don’t seem much lower than in Canada.
The exception is leather in its many forms, including upscale shoes, jackets, and bags. Antiques are another popular buy. But you need to know what you’re buying, and what the value will be back home.
So should B.A. have dethroned Vancouver from its best city in the Americas status? Buenos Aires is a great place to visit, but I’m glad to call Vancouver home.
Access: For apartment rentals, see www.BytArgentina.com/. For piazzolla tango dinner shows in the MicroCentro area, see www.piazzollatango.com/. Listings for tango and milonga spots can be found at www.tangodowntown.net/milongas.html. (I liked El Nino.) For information on the Faena Hotel and Universe, see www.faenahotelanduniverse.com/.