Buenos Aires, a Gem of Latin America

By Hostelling International / Stephanie Hillhouse

Ah yes, Argentina. Land of tango and great steaks, right?

True, it is the birthplace of the sultry tango and home of iconic singer Carlos Gardel, and yes, the steaks are ridiculously tender and delicious (vegetarians be warned, this is indeed a meat lover’s paradise).

But the true charm of Buenos Aires goes much deeper than that, its status as second most visited city in Latin America coming as no surprise.

Argentina’s capital city isn’t the kind of place that slaps you across the face with any one impression. It’s a place of many complex and contradictory layers—a breathtaking, all-senses-engaged mini-country built mainly by immigrants from Italy, Spain and France that has seen its share of glory days and dark hours. After deciding it was finally time to fulfill a lifelong desire to spend a few months learning Spanish in South America, I decided on Buenos Aires as my destination. She lured me in and demonstrated in fine form what ‘living’ is all about.

Buenos Aires is enormous in many ways—in its history, people, mix of cultures and, obviously, its size, it's moniker as the Paris of Latin America seems fitting.

It’s a big place that deserves at least a week to really dive into. I had two months to play with so I arrived on my own with no itinerary in mid-April, on the cusp of summer turning to autumn in the southern hemisphere. The cab ride into the city introduced me to BA’s famous “widest avenue in the world,” the impressive Avenida 9 de Julio as you’ll find yourself oft-reminded by proud locals, and they aren’t kidding. Crossing that bad boy took a few minutes and became one of my most heart-racing daily undertakings.

Things have changed in big ways for porteños (“people of the port,” or BA residents) in recent years. Prior to the disastrous economic crash of 2001, Buenos Aires was a notoriously expensive city, comparable to New York City. Although beautiful and visit-worthy, it was often left out of the typical backpacker’s South American itinerary, and hostels were lost among the many luxury hotels. Sadly, many years of inept and corrupt leadership led to a financial fallout that left citizens with frozen bank accounts and drastically reduced savings. Suddenly one of the most expensive cities in the world became one of the cheapest, and since 2001 hostels and various other budget-travel services have sprung up to satisfy demand. In the past two years, Argentina has thankfully experienced an economic upturn; although the bargain-basement prices are gone, it remains a great deal and has been classed as the most important global city and competitive marketplace of Latin America. 

HI-Hostel Suites Obelisco, the hostel I chose to stay in during my introductory weeks, was one such place, and it could be a blueprint for hostels everywhere. Staffed by super helpful locals, it offers tons of organized events, and is clean and right downtown (Av. Corrientes 830).

Being a bit of a car-hater, I was happy to find that Buenos Aires is a city that is meant to be discovered by foot.

My neck got sore from constantly craning it upward to admire the gorgeous European architecture, and downward to avoid the ever-present loose cobblestone or dog droppings. Noticeable was a combination of odours that included fresh-baked goods and a hint of pollution. I found myself aware of every conversation around me, realizing that the Spanish spoken here was radically different from any I’d heard before, and I spent many a morning sipping a tiny café cortado, nibbling a cheese tostado and muddling my way through whatever local newspaper I could get my hands on. They take reading very seriously here—every tree-lined block or so you’ll come across a gigantic newsstand that offers papers, magazines and even books or games to keep your mind busy.

Eventually, I found myself living in an apartment with other students I’d met through the Spanish school I attended. The apartment itself had issues (a chain-smoking live-in landlady, the world’s tiniest shower—with a window in it!), but I loved the location in the middle of a very regular neighbourhood called Caballito. I settled rather quickly into a daily routine of four-hour Spanish lessons, which proved to be very rewarding. With only two others in my class, we learned quickly and my ear in time adjusted to the lunfardo tinged Buenos Aires accent. One of the highlights of my day was the daily commute to the school on the ‘A’ Subway line, which at 95-years-old, happens to be the oldest in Latin America. Slightly rickety and with its original woodpanelled interior, it was a risky but worthwhile trip into the past for a few minutes each day.

The city’s barrios—neighbourhoods—are small and highly individualized, which makes it easier to get to know this massive city in manageable chunks.

Among my favourites was San Telmo, home to old, authentic, two-storey buildings, cool graffiti and a funky Sunday feria—market—that I rarely missed. It is also the birthplace of the sensual tango, a music and dance style that has its origins in the late 1800s with poor immigrants and campesinos already in Argentina. Carlos Gardel—the “king of tango” tragically killed in a plane crash at the height of his career—is practically God here, as is Diego Maradona, the controversial yet brilliant son of Argentine soccer.

Another barrio worth mentioning is Palermo. Although touristy, no visit to Buenos Aires is complete without at least one full night out here. That means drinks and dinner around 10 p.m. at one of the many open-air restaurants followed by a night out—bars here don’t get going until 2 a.m. or later and often don’t close until sunrise. Steak is, of course, the most famous dish—ask for the bife de lomo for the tastiest piece and a serving of chimmichurri along with it—but with Argentina’s Italian heritage comes amazing thin-crust pizza and pasta. Empanadas are a popular snack. Stuffed with anything from ham and cheese to spinach and onion, they are addictive, easily available and cost less than a dollar each.

At the heart of any city is its people. Porteños are proud and always put their best, most confident face forward, regardless of whatever difficulties or uncertainties lie beneath.

I sometimes felt a bit underdressed in certain parts of town—this is a place teeming with some beautiful, sharply dressed folks. Both plastic surgery and psychotherapy rates are very high here, so these are people looking inwards and outwards for happiness. The common traits I found among most porteños were unreservedness and passion. Passion for the meal they were eating, passion for their country, passion for their friends, passion for their significant other right there on the bench in the park, passion for protesting against perceived wrongs. Emotions are displayed in a way I’ve never encountered and I found it very refreshing.

Take a trip to the Plaza de Mayo on any Thursday at 3:30 p.m. and you’ll encounter the quiet passion of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, still marching peacefully 30 years after their children disappeared (presumably kidnapped, tortured and killed) at the hands of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina in the late 1970s. The white scarves they wear are symbolically painted around the plaza as a reminder. 

My last days in Buenos Aires had me both excited to get home to ‘summer’ and sad to leave a place I felt I was just getting to truly know. Few people leave without swearing that they’ll be back, and I’m one of them! 

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