Buenos Aires (Originally Published in February 2012)
Argentina is a very large country with a lot of empty space, that is, empty of people. We spent three wonderful weeks there using Buenos Aires as our base while we traveled south to Patagonia and then northwest to the wine country in Mendoza. About a third of the population lives in Buenos Aires which dominates the politics of the country. It is a truly beautiful city with lots of parks, wide boulevards, tree-shaded older neighborhoods and ubiquitous graffiti almost raised to the level of fine art. It is easy to get around the city either by relatively cheap (by US standards) taxis or even cheaper buses and subways. High rise buildings are gradually invading the city, but the city is still dominated by 2-3 story buildings. It seems to go on forever.
We stayed in the Palermo Hollywood neighborhood at the Fierro Hotel Boutique. www.fierrohotel.com I think the rates may have gone up since we booked our reservations last summer, but we paid about $200 a night plus VAT (roughly 20%) for a balcony “suite” with a king size bed. The “suite” was really one large room with a good size balcony on the first floor (the lobby level floor is called floor 0) overlooking the street or the garden depending on which side of the hotel the room is located. The beds are great and the plumbing throughout is first-rate. The hotel is small with only 27 rooms and is a little over a year old. We were able to store our luggage there with no hassle when we traveled to Patagonia and Mendoza.
The Palermo Hollywood neighborhood is a hub of activity with restaurants and pubs on nearly every corner. Our favorite watering hole was Guaresnei, located on the corner of Carranza and Nicaragua Streets and well within walking distance from our hotel. The manager introduced us to Legui (pronounced “leggy”), a liqueur made from rum, burnt cane sugar, herbal tea and water. Apparently, you can’t buy it in the US – bummer! Most restaurants in Buenos Aires don’t start serving dinner until 8:30 pm, but Guaresnei is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And the bar actually serves liquor as well as beer and wine. I got a little “wined out,” especially after returning from Mendoza and its bodegas. But don’t ask for anything complicated, like a martini or a Manhattan. Only simple drinks like a vodka tonic. The manager (I wish I had learned his name) can make a good Margarita. The food is not gourmet but it’s good, especially the risotto and the handmade pasta.
The Fierro Hotel actually has one of the best restaurants in Buenos Aires – the Hernán Gipponi Restaurant. Its specialty is a 6-9 course tasting menu with wine pairings that will knock your socks off. We were especially impressed by the white wines offered with the first three courses. Argentina is known for its Malbecs, but it also has splendid white wines, in particular the Torrontés wines from Salta. I have to confess I only made it through the first 5 courses and then had to retire, but my stalwart comrades soldiered on to the end.
Within walking distance of Palermo Hollywood is Palermo Soho centered around the Plaza Serrano. This area is dominated by boutiques, restaurants and bars. On Saturdays and Sundays there is a craft fair in the plaza. My husband Noel and I actually found a fish spa there where we sat with our feet in warm water while little doctor fish ate the dead skin off. It sounds weird and it was but we enjoyed it so much we did it twice. Ey! at 1923 J.L. Borges Street.
A short cab ride away in Bario Parque is Malba, the Museum of Latin American Art. The focus is on modern and contemporary Latin American art. It is a must see. When we were there in January, the museum had a large show surveying 100 years of Latin American art. The contemporary section (1960-2010) was not that strong, but there was a retrospective of the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez that was spectacular. He produces what he calls “physichromies” which are three-dimensional color modules that combine the three different conditions of color: additive, reflective, and subtractive. Pretty technical stuff, but basically what happens is that the viewer’s perception of color in a piece changes as he/she moves. Malba also has a lovely café.
No first visit to Buenos Aires is complete without seeing the tomb of Eva Perón in the Recoleta Cemetery. I love cemeteries and the Recoleta Cemetery has some of the most amazing funerary art I’ve seen outside of the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.
And, of course, Buenos Aires has the tango. You can see the tango performed in the streets for free in the Plaza Serrano on weekends in Palermo Soho and on Sundays at the antiques market in San Telmo at the Plaza Dorrega. There are tons of antique stores surrounding the market, so if you’re into antiques, San Telmo is a good place to spend a Sunday afternoon. There’s even a tango show called Evita Vive where the melodrama of Juan and Evita Perón is told via the tango. We splurged and experienced professional tango music and dancing at Rojo Tango in the Faena Hotel located in the Puerto Madero barrio. Frankly, I was blown away by the music as much as the dancing. In the streets the music comes from CD’s. At roughly $250 per person Rojo Tango is not cheap but basically equivalent to seeing a top-notch Broadway musical. A very good 3-course dinner is also included. www.rojotango.com
With all the beef consumed in Argentina I expected there to be great leather shoe and bag shopping. I was generally disappointed in the women’s shoes but I did manage to buy two really beautiful leather bags for less than half what I would have paid in the US. One shop I recommend is Cristina Leizzarrague, located in the touristy and colorful La Boca neighborhood. www.cleizzarrague.com.ar La Boca may be touristy but its craft market on Caminito Street is worth a visit. In addition to the usual souvenirs you’ll also find decent tango paintings by young emerging artists.
If you are interested in architecture, you should go on a tour of the Teatro Colon located in the city center. It was built by three different architects at the turn of the last century and is considered one of the four most important opera houses in the world. It has just undergone a complete renovation. One irritating note, however, is that nobody seems to have change when you purchase tour tickets or try to buy a bottle of water at the café.
We had a few hours to fill before we boarded our return flight to the US, so we took an opportunity to see the Ernesto Neto installation at the Faena Arts Center in the Puerto Madero area, very near the Faena Hotel where we had experienced Rojo Tango. Neto is a Brazilian artist known for his huge installations that totally fill a space and invite the viewer to become a participant in the work. His construction at the Faena Arts Center entitled “Biche suspendido en el paisaje” or “Bug suspended in the landscape” is an enormous suspended series of colorful plastic industrial-strength nets enclosing styrofoam balls and arranged like tunnels that you can actually walk in. Walking around inside this remarkable piece hurt my feet, so I exited pretty quickly. The arts center is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. Close by is a lovely pedestrian bridge by Santiago Calatrava.
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Next we fly to Comodoro Riadavia in Patagonia.