Buenos Aires is the Athens of Latin America. I’m not talking about Mycenaean-style houses, the weather or topless women sunbathing on the golden sands of a rich Athens suburb. Buenos Aires is chicer and more blasé than that. But just like Greece’s capital, Buenos Aires knows what it’s like to see your economy collapse. At the close of the 20th century it witnessed one of the worst economic crises in its history and, curiously, it has been a cultural and social hotspot ever since.
Buenos Aires, which means “good air” in Spanish, is the most European city in Latin America, with its outdoor cafés, harsh winters and countless psychoanalysis clinics – as well as being the birthplace of tango and alfajores (a local sweet creation enjoyed throughout Latin America), the city leads the world ranking of psychologists per capita, with 121 doctors for every 100,000 inhabitants. It is often said that Porteños (as Buenos Aires’ inhabitants are called), are as arrogant as the French, like good and plentiful food as much as the Spanish, and make as exaggerated use of car horns, speak as loudly and gesticulate as much as the Italians. Not quite, but it is close.
A quick tour of some of the most frequented bars in the fashionable neighbourhood of Palermo certainly dispels one myth: that Porteños are grumpy. Just the tradition of giving a kiss on the cheek when greeting, even between men, means that it’s impossible not to feel welcome – and even a little loved. In the brand new Bar Gaudir, set in a charming two-floor house at Calle Humbolt, I am greeted by the owner, Fernando. At 55, with grey rebellious hair, and large strong hands, he is responsible not only for the decor and design but also the furniture. He proudly shows me around.
Argentine warmth can also be found in the parrilla (the typical Argentinian meat grill) restaurant, La Brigada, in San Telmo. The kitchen is run by owner Hugo Chavarrieta who welcomes guests as though they were old friends. He gets up early every day to visit the city’s butchers in search of the best beef before returning to the restaurant to make the fire for the parrilla and start grilling.
Now add to this warmth a real sense of being safe on the streets, at least if you’re walking on the new promenade in Puerto Madero. Massive government and foreign investment has revitalised this once dangerous port, attracting shops and cafés. Located on Lock 4, the new Fortabat Art Collection Museum brings together works of Warhol, Dalí, Chagal, Klimt, Rodin and more. It was built by the heir of Loma Negra cement, María Amalia Lacroze of Fortabat, when she sold the family firm to the Brazilian conglomerate Camargo Correa in 2005. It represents perhaps the last gasp of the old industrial Argentine bourgeoisie. Outside the museum a small yet magical spectacle of nature touches even the most heartless: in the autumn the wind that blows from the Río de la Plata carries with it millions of winged dandelion seeds which transform the air with their delicate ballet.
The fact is, Baires, as it is affectionately called by ordinary people (and by singer and composer Fito Paez who, almost every year, releases a new album with at least one song dedicated to the city), overflows with life and joy.
Be warned that the nightlife usually starts late. It’s after 22.00 that restaurants start to fill. Unless you want to dine solo, don’t even think about giving into your hunger before this time. And don’t think about going to a club before 02.00 in the morning; even then you may find that the doors are still closed, but once open it stays open until the sun rises. Be it the cobblestone streets and narrow alleys of the neighbourhood of San Telmo, the trendy bars and concept stores such as Pehache Calma Chica in Palermo, fancy restaurants including El Mercado in Puerto Madero, the colourful houses of El Caminito or the noble and lofty Teatro Colón or the Art Nouveaux architecture of the Palacio de Aguas Corrientes, Buenos Aires proves that it’s a culturally and socially exciting town, where traditional and modern combine effortlessly.
Buenos Aires’s three million inhabitants – 14 million in greater Buenos Aires – somehow get past the economic and political problems they face to live an enviable lifestyle. They do this with the skill of a striker for Boca, the football team that is the most loved and hated in the capital, depending on your allegiance. This is the same Boca that in the late 1970s gave the world the flawed genius of Maradona. And right there in Boca, one of the poorest and most violent neighbourhoods in the city, you can find one of the secrets that have made its inhabitants happy; even those with empty pockets. At the end of 2010, the government invested $15.5m in renovating an old fish market. Renamed the Metropolitan Design Centre, it houses 70 start-ups, from young fashion designers and filmmakers to web experts.
Although last year the country had economic growth of 9 per cent, a few months ago Argentina’s president Cristina Kirchner launched a cartoon video in which green extra-terrestrials explain to young people how foreign debt brought the country down. In three and a half minutes the animation, produced by the Faculty of Economics of UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires), has the travellers from outer space moving around an Argentina devastated by the banking collapse. In October, the country goes to the polls to elect a new president and Kirchner, who is the widow of former president Néstor Kirchner, is the favourite to win.
Meanwhile, Porteños continue to enjoy themselves and their attitude has made Buenos Aires a place that people from around the world are anxious to add to their travel itineraries. In 2010, tourist arrivals in Argentina grew by 27.1 per cent over the previous year, reaching a record 2.64m. After all, where else in the world can you eat the finest cut of beef for the price of a McDonald’s meal deal and drink a good red wine that costs the same as a bottle of mineral water?
Why we love it
- A 24-hour metabolism and citizens with the stamina to get the most out of life.
- An architectural mash-up that pits modernism against beaux arts.
- Food and drink: this is a city where there’s always time for another glass of red.
- The financial crisis kept the usual chains at bay and allowed the local and quirky to flourish.
- The people: how did so many handsome people end up in one city?