Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Three days in Buenos Aires

After four fantastic days in Rio (during the World Cup, no less) I don’t know of any other city on earth that could have topped it.  So we were asking the impossible from Buenos Aires as we landed late on a frigid Thursday evening, with vivid images of the sunny Rio beaches still fresh in our minds.  But the original idea was to experience the local culture [and the World Cup, of course] in multiple countries during this whirlwind South American two-week tour.  So here we go:

History tells us that the Rio de la Plata area was first settled by Pedro de Mendoza (1536), but he was later defeated by the indigenous people and abandoned it in 1541.  In 1580 Juan de Garay takes credit for the current settlement, which at the time he called Ciudad de la Santísima Trinidad y Puerto de Santa María del Buen Aire [City of the Most Holy Trinity and Port of Saint Mary of the Fair Winds].  It became Buenos Aires around the 17th century, or BA for short in this texting-happy society we live in today!

Buenos Aires is currently the third biggest city in South America (after Mexico City and São Paulo) and second most visited (ahead of Rio, believe it or not).  The central area – given the architecture and obvious historic influence – looks like any big European metropolis.  Perhaps that was one of the reasons it didn't hold too much appeal for us, since we've “seen” it before in Paris, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and even Bucharest… But being the most European of South American cities certainly has its appeal…

And of course, that appeal goes beyond history and architecture… To a football lover is the country that brought us the great and controversial Maradona and more recently, my boy Lio [Messi].  To my wife, the birthplace of Tango – the most sensual and sophisticated form of dance known to man (and women)!

Under that pretext, no visit to BA is complete without experiencing Tango first hand.  Frankly, you wouldn't be able to do that even if you wanted to; it’s omnipresent and barely overshadowed by the ongoing World Cup! 

So, when in “Rome”…

First stop: a studio in San Telmo for a 90-minute private Tango lesson with Lucia & Gerry – a fantastic couple that I found on my favorite planning site (Tripadvisor).  I don’t have two left feet, as they say, but after going through the ABC’s of Tango steps [check out the video] I now have a much more heightened appreciation for how difficult it is, versus how easy it looks.  Cross system, parallel system, boleo, patada, calesita, apilado, ocho cortado… What??? Clearly takes years of practice to master, but it’s also a dance that one has to “feel” and become one with the partner in order to get it right.  And that part can’t be taught!  Yet, if you have a bit of time, I recommend this hands-on approach to Tango.  It really opens your eyes to “see” it better as you vacation in BA.  For you will undoubtedly encounter it everywhere…

Lucia & Gerry
There are multiple venues where one can experience Tango.  Most are overpriced dinner-and-a-show tourist traps that cater to foreigners (locals barely go to these things).  Some are quite good, and if you’re interested, I’ve done the research for you (both online and from talking to the locals in the know):  Senor Tango and Rojo Tango are the big productions worth going to.  For something more intimate, We Are Tango looks interesting.  I’d consider one of the places that offer – even a brief – group or individual lesson prior to the show.  It will give you a better appreciation and understanding.

We skipped the big shows (partially because we needed an extra night in town for that) and decided to join Lucia & Gerry again on Sunday night at a Milonga (where locals – and of course some tourists – gather to dance).  On this occasion, it turned out that they had a live program from a 10-piece band (phenomenal, by the way – check out the link) and a set of exhibition dances from an equally gifted young couple.  So in the end, we got a better deal: live show, fantastic performance from the pros, and the opportunity to practice the steps learned two days earlier… all for a fraction of the price of the big shows I mentioned above. 

As you can see, the trip to BA started and ended with Tango.  There were other episodes throughout: we were invited to dance by the patrons of a local restaurant where we stopped for lunch (he was actually a big Ilie Nastase fan!) window-shopped for tango shoes (I could barely drag my mouth-watering wife out of there) and encountered live music and dancing quite a bit out in the streets… It really is a big part of life down there!


At the time I started writing this – about 6 weeks after our visit – there wass increased concern for Argentina as a nation defaulting again (second time in the last 13 years) against its creditors.  On July 30th, that fear has been confirmed to the tune of a $20 billion default!  The peso lost almost 17% in value over the last two days!  Inflation is at an aberrant 30%.  I mention it to help paint a picture of how economically unstable the country is, which means that from a tourist’s perspective, the dollar goes so much further here.  I won’t go into the politics of how it got there; just need to make note of this, as it’s relevant to anyone travelling to BA.

Under the current economic conditions, the official exchange rate is about 8.18 soles per USD.  But with some domestic policies that don’t allow Argentinians to buy foreign currency (recently those restrictions have been loosened) there’s a black market (called blue, actually) listing the same transaction at 12.8 USD today.  It’s somewhat illegal to exchange money outside of the official channels, but it’s so widespread, that the authorities look the other way.  The main tourist areas (like Calle Florida) are full of people whispering “cambio, cambio” and they typically offer close to that 12.8 rate.  The risk is that you may end up with fake bills, or the old swap, where you give them a $100 bill, they pretend you gave them a $10 or $20 and your exchange rate won’t be as advantageous after all ;-)  I’ve seen that in Romania before, and most inexperienced tourists won’t know what hit them.  The safer alternative is a service like Xoom where you can “send” money to yourself at any one of their locations, and pick it up at what today looks like 10.15 peso exchange rate.  Safest, of course, would be straight out of an ATM, but you’ll get it at the official [lowest] rate plus you’ll pay whatever fees.  So, under no circumstances use the ATM or credit card for purchases.  If cash is king everywhere else, here it’s emperor!  Just bring some cash to change locally, or send USD through the service i mentioned and pick up pesos in BA.  Just make sure the Xoom location will be open ;-)  For us, it happened to be Flag Day that Friday, so we had to cancel the transfer, since the service was closed!

K.  As long as we’re clear on that (there’s tons of advice on the topic on the web), let’s go take advantage of that exchange rate!  Let’s go spend some money!

Calle Florida is the main shopping drag, and naturally caters to tourists.  Ditto for the prices, as Galerias Pacifico gets pretty close to any mall in the US when it comes to prices.  I recommend Calle Murillo (Villa Crespo) for leather products, and San Telmo or Monserrat areas for arts and crafts.  We enjoyed a long walk down Defensa, which turns into a pedestrian-only street-vendor marketplace on weekends.  Lots of opportunities for bargain-hunting.  Lots of restaurants and street food as well.

Just a few blocks to the east of San Telmo is Puerto Madero – a newer development of condos, shops and nice restaurants.  One such notable restaurant is Siga La Vaca, a locals’ favorite where for $35 (fixed price) you can have an all-you-can-eat parrilla dinner that includes salads, appetizers, steak (or pork/chicken/etc.) desert and a half-bottle of wine or pitcher of beer.  We were there for lunch on a Friday (only $24 for the same menu) but the wait was over one hour long and we were too hungry to wait... We instead walked up north to Puente de la Mujer, enjoying the weather while the sun was out.  This was early winter after all in the southern hemisphere, and got quite chilly overnight.

From San Telmo (frankly one of my favorite areas) one can go further south to explore La Boca and Caminito.  But as we looked more into it, it appears to be nothing but a small yet colorful tourist trap that didn’t really hold much appeal to us.  I’ve seen a couple pictures, which was enough for me.  And I didn’t care enough about visiting the Bombonera (the famous Boca Juniors stadium) this time around, despite the Maradona connection.  By the way, if you do decide to go, it’s one of those taxi-in-and-out destinations, as the area around is pretty shady…So, my suggestion: skip it.  Here’s some pics to save you the trouble:

Back across from Puerto Madero, Parque Colón and Plaza de Mayo offer a nice opportunity to rest up and feed the pigeons.  Around the square you’ll find some of the notable point of interest:  Casa Rosada (house of government and the office of the President, where every hour you can witness the changing of the guard), the National Bank, City Hall, other high ranking government offices (sort of like the “National Mall” in Washington DC) and the Metropolitan Cathedral. 

Grabbing a chorizo bite on the go... 
... and Mafaldu'

Sorry... the Mafalda/Mafaldu' captions above don't really translate from Romanian.  But trust me, it's FUNNY! 

Colorful San Telmo!

Notice how Maradona is holding the world cup trophy while Messi is empty-handed ;-)?  Looks like they don't have to modify that statue, for now...

A short cab ride north from here you’re in Recoleta – the most affluent neighborhood of the city (highest real estate prices); designer stores and top restaurants abound in this area, which is also home to the famous Cemetery where Eva Perón was laid to rest (think New Orleans cemeteries, but much better):


Heading back east a few blocks, you’ll eventually hit 9 de Julio Avenue – the widest boulevard in the world (eat that, Champs-Élysées) – with up to 7 lanes each way, plus another two lanes on either side, as if the other 7 were not enough.  The Obelisk – built in 1936 – was erected to celebrate 400 years since the first settlement (remember the brief history lesson up top?).  Today it attracts thousands of people for protests or [World Cup] celebratory gatherings, when the largest avenue in the world gets effectively shut down!

The obelisk in 1936 (b&w) and today (after the Holland semifinal below)

Two blocks north from the obelisk, Teatro Colón – considered by most to be one of the top 5 concert venues in the world (in terms of acoustics) – is one of the main attractions in BA.  Pavarotti once said that the acoustics have the greatest defect: they’re perfect!  Which means any bad note will be immediately noticed!  Oh, and did I mention it was opened in 1908 (original one was 1857), which means all the perfect acoustics are achieved without microphones, speakers, or new technology?  One could actually hear a whisper from the stage!

Aesthetically, it’s just as nice as the Paris Opera, if not nicer.  Gold (from lower karats to 24) adorns the walls and ceilings in the Golden Room.  The great hall is absolutely stunning.  Tours start every hour, almost, so give it a go if you’re in the area.  You won’t regret it.  Better yet, on some Sundays they offer free concerts (local artists) if you’re looking to take in the full experience.

A permanent  fixture
in most parillas
The last area worth exploring is Palermo.  Palermo Viejo (old) and Soho (south) to be exact.  The latter centers around Plaza Cerrano, where typically there’s a weekend arts and crafts market, and there is no shortage of cafés, bars and restaurants nearby.

As you can see, Buenos Aires had plenty to offer, despite Rio setting the bar so high.  I would imagine in the summer is even nicer (the relatively cold weather did play a role, I must admit) and I’m sure it would be fun to take in one of the tourist shows I mentioned earlier.  We didn’t, on this occasion, because dinner plans did not permit.

Yes, I’ll spend the last part of this blog post on the culinary experiences, of course…

When in Argentina, one has to experience asado.  Period.  Steak really is a staple in this part of the world, and people here know their meat.  Don Julio, Calden del Soho, La Cabrera, Estilo Campo, La Brigada are just a few of the parrillas (steakhouses) you’ll hear as “top” in the city.  I’m sure they’re all great, but we chose a less traditional route: a closed-door semi-private parrilla dinner with Luis

The "raw" stuff
You see, as economy has headed south, restaurants are finding it increasingly difficult to fill tables and are seeing profits erode.  Some chefs – in order to eliminate the high cost of running a restaurant – opt for hosting these “private” dinners that cater to a certain demographic.  In our case, it didn’t disappoint.  It was actually amazing! Yup, 10 people in total (counting us 4) spent about 3.5 hours enjoying fantastic food, equally excellent wine, making new friends with some Aussies, and learning secrets of the trade from Luis.  All for $75 per person, including all-you-can-drink wine (a wholesaler was there for the event, trying to pitch his wares).  Something like that easily goes for double or more in the States. 

The mouth-watering steak was only the “cherry on top” so to speak in an evening where we got a close-and-personal account of what parrilla means to an Argentine, and got to hang out with Luis Fabrini who shyly walked us through the whole ritual of getting the grill ready (something that his gaucho abuelo passed down to him) and allowed us to steal a secret or two.  I’m now seriously considering building one of these parrillas at home!

Magic under way...

Before the main course, we got to experience how fantastic grilled achuras (entrails) can be.  Seriously, the grilled kidney tasted like grilled foie gras to me, and the intestines were finger-licking-licious.  The blood sausage?  A rich, warm, creamy goodness that gets me drooling again just thinking about it.  Like butter, I tell ya!

oh, yeah!!!

Small accolade, one of the Aussies – larger than life Arthur Birch, first on the left in the picture below – is somewhat of a BBQ celebrity “Down-Under” and was here also to steal some professional tips from Luis.  Funny guy, apparently, but talked so fast, in such a deep Australian accent, that even the other 3 Aussies could not “translate” word for word what he was saying… Anyway, he’s in a Don Quijote-like pursuit (complete with Sancho Panza – the guy under Luis’ arm) to one day win a world BBQ competition.  Best of luck, mate!

Oh, and since I mentioned the guy pitching wine at the party, here’s a few Malbecs to check out next time in the wine store: Achaval Ferrer, Melipal, Mendel, Viña Cobos, and Punto Final Reserva.  Salud!

Although the evening started somewhat under a question mark (knocking on a nondescript gray door and walking up a narrow flight of stairs to reach the loft), it turned out to be a very memorable dining experience!  So go out there and try something new.  Be adventurous! Looks like it pays off.

Vamosss Argentina carajoooooo!

From the traditional, authentic parrilla, we moved to the other end of the culinary spectrum: molecular gastronomy at Aramburu (last year #31 restaurant in South America) 

A couple years ago I got a taste of Ferran Adrià’s "deconstructivist" cuisine at Tickets in Barcelona (it was the closest thing to El Bulli, who closed a couple years earlier).  So when Aramburu popped out at #3 on list of best BA restaurants, the reservation was as good as done.  Especially since such an experience – 12 course dinner, with accompanying flight of wines – at USD $100 (tip included) was too good to miss.  By contrast, Grant Achatz’s 18-course dinner at Alinea in Chicago will set you back about $460 ($210 dinner, $150 wine, plus tax and tip).  Sure, Alinea is probably as many time as good; it’s been named best in the US three times already – and I might just splurge on it next time I’m in the Windy City just to get another item off my bucket list – but this was pretty amazing also, all things considered.  Aside from the innovative dishes, I was pleasantly surprised with the range of Argentinian wines outside of the well-established Malbec.  The sommelier was very knowledgeable and introduced us to some amazing Pinot Noir (Manos Negras winery in Patagonia was one of them) as well as whites (but memory - and the phone camera – failed me here).  In the end, I’d give it 3.5 solid stars.  Presentation was spectacular, but taste slightly missed a note or two on a couple of dishes…

Done.  Wrapped up 3 full days in BA where we got to experience – some in more measure than others – the most European city in South America.  It would have been nice to catch the Argentina – Iran game in a more lively setting, rather than the Hotel Panamericano lobby bar, but the match was so poor that if one slept through the whole thing and woke up in the 90th minute, they wouldn’t have missed anything; Messi’s stroke of brilliance goal didn’t come until 2 minutes into extra time!

It would have been fun to also catch one of the glitzy touristy shows I mentioned earlier.  Or get a nice leather jacket from the overwhelming number of choices and styles we came across.  Or stay until the Milonga closed, to practice the Tango steps.  But then we wouldn’t have anything to put in the “next time” bucket, would we?


For now, off to Peru and the marvel that is Machu Picchu [link]!


  1. For 75 bucks (about 1000 pesos) that you paid pp, four (4) can dine extremely well with good wine in any number of parrillas or the 4 can opt for mariscos at a place like Vasco Frances.

    1. Oh, I'm sure there are plenty of good quality choices in that price range... just thought that the whole "closed-door" semi-private dining experience was an interesting alternative to a traditional sit-down restaurant or parilla.