Visit Buenos Aires, Paris of the
By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY
Kevin Thomas didn't fly 7,500 miles
seeking a bargain. But by the close of his first day in this
cosmopolitan city, the 38-year-old San Diego engineer knew he
was in a place where even the budget-minded traveler can live
In the morning, he took a half-day city
tour that included a tango show, for $6. A steak and a beer at
lunch cost $3 at a trendy downtown eatery. Later, he stopped
at an elegant outdoor cafe for a $1 espresso, followed by two
mountainous scoops of Italian-style ice cream for a buck. And
now it's 11 p.m. and he's seated among throngs of other al
fresco diners at a popular neighborhood restaurant struggling
to finish the juicy slab of beef that eclipses his plate. He
pours the last drops from a bottle of local wine, concedes
defeat to the unfinished steak and requests the check. His
share of the tab: $4.
For much of the past decade, prices in
Buenos Aires rivaled those in spendthrift cities such as New
York and Tokyo. Now, a year into an economic crisis that has
shaved almost two-thirds off the value of its currency,
Argentina is suddenly one of the world's top foreign travel
bargains. A double room at a four-star hotel in the heart of
the city goes for $75 or less. Dinner with wine at a top
restaurant can be had for $20. Top-quality handmade leather
shoes cost $60 or less. An hour-long massage at a luxury hotel
What a difference a devaluation
The collapse of the Argentine peso, which
from 1991 to 2001 was pegged to the U.S. dollar, has been
devastating to Argentines, who saw their savings evaporate
when the currency was allowed to float on the open market a
year ago. Its value has climbed slightly since Thomas' visit
in late November, and the currency is now trading at 3.29
pesos to the dollar.
In the meantime, more than half of the
country's 36 million people are living in poverty. A handful
of presidents have come and gone. Working Argentines, from
shopkeepers to academics, are angry. And they're not shy about
"Sometimes I wish we were Japanese," says
Jorge Vieira, desk manager at the splendid Alvear Palace Hotel
in the city's exclusive Recoleta neighborhood. "Can you
imagine this country if the Japanese ran it? We've got land.
Weather. Wine. And look at us."
Indeed, that anger seems to be directed
at politicians and not at the growing number of tourists.
About 3 million foreign visitors were expected in 2002, a 16%
increase over 2001. They came despite last year's
devaluation-sparked demonstrations, which received heavy play
on cable news stations. Image-wary tourism officials reacted
by emphasizing the European roots and first-world
sensibilities of a nation whose capital city has long been
called the Paris of the South.
Their mantra: Argentina is safe,
attractive and economical.
"For the first time, people are realizing
that tourism isn't recreation. It's business," says Fabian
Doman, spokesman for the Argentine Embassy in Washington.
This capital of tango, asado
(grilled meat) and Freud (a reported 40,000 psychotherapists
practice here) surprises first-time visitors, many of whom
stop here only briefly en route to hunting, fishing and high
adventure in Argentina's southern Patagonia region.
"It's not like other Latin American
cities," says Lucas Rentero, an urban-history graduate student
and part owner of the tour company Eternautas. "It's European,
but it's not. It's like New York or San Francisco but with a
Hispanic background and without the economic growth. Buenos
Aires is complex."
Perhaps. But to the casual visitor, it is
a calm and welcoming place. The city strikes a middle-class,
even affluent, pose. Its broad avenues, pedestrian malls and
public parks are flanked by grand European-inspired
architecture from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when
Argentina grew fat off grain, cattle and wool exports. Despite
the economic tough times, warm summer weekends draw scores
outdoors. Avenida Santa Fe, which cuts a broad swath across
the city, is crowded with shoppers and browsers. (Though in
stores such as Cash Converters, selling everything from used
hammers to electric guitars, business is brisker than in the
pricey French cosmetics store across the way.)
In the Recoleta neighborhood, sunbathers
litter the grassy slopes of Plaza Intendente Alvear. Snaking
throughout the park are hundreds of artisan booths displaying
leather goods, ceramics and jewelry at the weekly crafts fair.
At sidewalk eateries, diners linger over lunch. Nearby in
Recoleta Cemetery, final stop for Buenos Aires' upper crust,
knots of tourists wander in awe amid ornate, castlelike
In San Telmo, the historic district south
of downtown, merchants at the Sunday flea market are decked
out in elaborate costumes to celebrate the 32nd anniversary in
late November of the renowned fair. It is a raucous display
that masks the economic crisis. A belly dancer and a giant
cheese wedge strut to a brass band in the cobbled square as a
man masquerading as an oily, machine-gun-toting politician
looks on. Across the square, a sixtysomething woman whose legs
still look fantastic wrapped in black fishnet stockings
engages in a seductive street-side tango.
Inside his antiques shop — one of 250
crammed along the narrow streets of the neighborhood — Juan
Carlos Maugeri looks out at the crowds. Up to 15,000 flock to
San Telmo for the weekly market, when 270 additional dealers
join the permanent shopkeepers. During Argentina's heyday as
one of the world's richest nations, the Argentine elite
imported finery from around the world, and some of it is for
sale here. "People can't imagine the quality of things we
have," he says.
Business has picked up "now that we are
trying to transform into a reasonable country," Maugeri adds.
"The great difference is that tourists are coming."
The beggars are out, too, though in no
greater numbers than most large cities. So are the
demonstrators in Plaza de Mayo, the political heart of Buenos
Aires. This is where Eva Perón (and later, Madonna doing
Evita) rallied supporters from the balcony of the
presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, that overlooks the
grand plaza. And it is still where Argentines go to express
their disaffection. But this is a democracy, after all; there
have always been protests here, locals say. Even in the
most turbulent days after the devaluation, curious bystanders
felt unthreatened enough to videotape the scene.
The situation is different in some areas
off the tourist trail, however, where the frustrations of the
poor erupt in more violent ways.
"Buenos Aires is a bubble," Maugeri says.
"I could drive you 10 minutes away in my car and you'll see
But in the more affluent areas of the
city, the most apparent hazards are the plentiful dog
droppings, scattered like urban land mines awaiting the unwary
footfall. In lively neighborhoods such as Palermo Viejo, a
bohemian section of parks, one-of-a-kind boutiques and ethnic
eateries, diners spill out of the restaurants onto the
sidewalks until well after midnight. On weekends, hundreds jam
the neighborhood's centerpiece park, Plaza Serrano, for drinks
and conversation. And would-be lotharios eye perspective
partners at milongas, tango dance halls.
In revitalized areas such as this one,
young artists and entrepreneurs see new possibilities in the
midst of economic turmoil. Designers of clothing, housewares
and jewelry showcase their creations in chic, rehabbed
storefronts. Homegrown merchandise is in new demand since the
devaluation, which increased the price of imported goods.
For Lucas Markowiecki, 27, the
devaluation has meant new business for his tour company,
Tangol. This morning, he squired four Minnesota tango teachers
around town. The other day, he accompanied a Houston cop to a
soccer match. Tomorrow, he'll go shopping with cruise ship
passengers from Alabama.
"Tourists used to come and buy a leather
jacket, eat beef and maybe go to a tango show," he says. "Now
they're staying longer and spending more. There's a world of