Buenos Aires, always in style

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Argentineans are beautiful, and they dress with flair. Even women in jeans have the ability to throw on an ordinary scarf or shawl in such a way that they end up looking elegant.

My friend Pam and I look at each other immediately after arriving in Buenos Aires. We've been friends so long we can sometimes read each other's minds. She says it first: "Haircuts."

We stop in the first salon we pass. A wash, cut, highlights and blow-dry cost 37 pesos each - about $13.

Try doing that in Paris. I came to Argentina hoping to find an alternative to Europe. I happily anticipated that I would find things cheaper here - after all, the Argentine peso went into free fall back in 2002. But how exceptional would the bargains be, and would it really be a true substitute - close enough to the original to satisfy the traveler yearning for a European-style experience?

Matter of fact, during my days and nights in Buenos Aires, I had to keep reminding myself that I was in South America. Walking wide boulevards lined with fine, European-style architecture, past chic restaurants and bistros where people linger over meals, you sometimes feel as if you are in Paris. Late at night, though, the bright lights and indefinable sense of energy in the streets reminded me more of New York - although New York is much more ethnically diverse. Portenos, as residents of Buenos Aires are called, are predominantly of European extraction.

Basically, visiting Buenos Aires is like going to Europe and finding that everything is half-off American prices.

Granted, you still have to get there. But our package price of $900 each - about the cost of airfare to Europe this summer, or to Argentina, for that matter - included airfare direct from Washington Dulles International airport, six nights in a very nice, centrally located hotel with breakfasts, airport transfers in a private car with a tour guide to greet us, and a half-day bus tour of the city.

If we'd been extremely frugal - eating in the cheapest restaurants and taking public buses for 30 cents - we could have gotten by on less than $200 for all other expenses that week. We chose instead to enjoy a few affordable luxuries. This included taking cabs (after all, the meters start at 55 cents), great meals in beautiful settings, a day trip out of the city and an overnight trip to an estancia, one of the many former estates where the wealthiest aristocrats of Argentine society once lived and trained their polo ponies during the months they were not vacationing in Europe.

Of course, this tourist windfall comes at the expense of the Argentine people who still struggle with the fallout of many years of inept and corrupt leadership. Just a few years ago, the Argentine peso was pegged to the American dollar, one for one. During our trip, banks were giving about 2.8 pesos for one dollar. Even that apparently did not reflect the true state of the peso: Most shops and restaurants were happy to take American dollars and give a flat three-to-one exchange.

Yet the city - at least the central areas that tourists frequent - shows few, if any, signs of the financial collapse that the country has endured. Restaurants, bars and tango venues are filled with locals. Parks and buildings both public and private seem well-kept. You see fewer obviously destitute people than you would in similar neighborhoods in American cities. Although the U.S. State Department warns of petty crime, I felt safe walking in busy downtown neighborhoods.

How can the city and so many of its inhabitants continue to look so good? The answer that keeps coming back boils down to this: Looking good is a central tenet of the culture in this country that was once one of the richest on Earth. When Argentine actor Fernando Lamas would repeat his familiar phrase, "You look mahvelous, darling," he was summing up the ethos of his country.

Perhaps native-born Patricia Foster gives the best insight into current-day Argentina. Foster, who manages a tourist ranch about two hours outside the city, says life is tough, and she's lucky to have a job. Unlike her parents did with her, she is unable to help her grown daughter, whose monthly earnings don't even pay her rent. But it's important to keep up appearances.

"We live here like in the theater," Foster says. And it's a very good show.

The Spanish were the first European settlers to arrive and conquer here, and some of the churches built by Jesuit missionaries remain in Buenos Aires. But subsequent waves of European immigrants have left their mark. There are about as many Italian restaurants in the city as there are steakhouses, and you can raise a glass in an Irish tavern with a Spanish-speaking O'Donnell or Flaherty, or have a German strudel in a cafe in an old French mansion.

About 9 million of Argentina's 37 million people live in and near the port city, which boasts 47 separate and distinct neighborhoods.

When I learn that our hotel is in the central business district, I assume it will be a long walk from anything other than canyons of office buildings. But it turns out Buenos Aires ­doesn't have soulless high-rise neighborhoods. The ground floors of office buildings are used for retail, so our hotel on Reconquista is surrounded with chic stores and restaurants, the streets lively with pedestrians from early morning until late at night. As long as we stash our cameras and keep our mouths shut, Pam and I are mistaken for locals. People handing out fliers trying to entice us into restaurants or stores routinely address us in Spanish. When it becomes clear we're from the United States, we get an enthusiastic greeting.

Although we've taken an 11-hour, overnight flight, the one-hour time difference means no jet lag, and we hit the streets immediately upon arrival.

We quickly realize we don't have to plan our days. Like a handful of great cities around the world, Buenos Aires is a place where you can walk aimlessly and be assured of finding numerous things of interest. Street performers pop up all over the city, and dozens of museums and other attractions are concentrated in several downtown neighborhoods. Our meandering path on our first day through the Centro and Retiro neighborhoods leads past museums dedicated to art, crime and forensics, photography, city history, currency, ethnography. Given that entrance fees range from 30 cents to a couple of dollars, you can pop in and out without feeling obligated to absorb every detail of every exhibit.

We've planned our trip so that we'll be free on a Sunday, to take in the San Telmo market. The neighborhood is considered slightly dicey at night, but on Sundays, it feels as if all of Buenos Aires has gathered for a massive street fair.

A brochure we've picked up at a downtown information kiosk lists the addresses of 92 clubs for dancing tango, the most internationally recognized symbol of Buenos Aires. But if your interest in tango is casual and you just want to see a few couples perform, you'll find them here on the streets, dancing for tips.

Classical guitarists are also playing for tips. Miming is a popular art form here, and costumes are elaborate. I didn't know there were so many mimes in the world.

And of course the main attraction: stuff. The market offers new, used and antique goods of every conceivable variety. I'm tantalized by big things - garden sculptures, elaborately decorated wrought iron gates, old wooden doors for which I have no use but love anyway, and huge copper pots and pans. I settle on some easily packed handmade jewelry, and vow to return some day for the pots.

For four days and four nights, we walk. Most of the time we have no specific destination in mind but simply explore neighborhoods. The most elegant and most unabashedly European: the adjoining neighborhoods of Recoleta and Palermo.

The French-style mansions in Recoleta date from the early 19th century, testimony to the wealth that once poured into Buenos Aires from the nearby pampas, or fertile grasslands. The neighborhood is perhaps most famous abroad for being home to the Recoleta Cemetery.

The historic, 10-acre cemetery is crowded with about 7,000 grand mausoleums housing Argentina's elite. With the help of a cemetery groundskeeper, we find the gravesite of Eva Peron.

Fifty years after her death, she remains a controversial national figure, but she clearly has her long-enduring fans, judging from the flowers they place in the iron filigree of the mausoleum doors.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the fabled wealth and cultural stature of Buenos Aires: Teatro Colon, the world-renowned, 2,500-seat opera house opened in 1908. Its auditorium, in French baroque style, is lauded by opera and symphony buffs for superb acoustics. The walls of the foyer are made with three kinds of European marble; the floors are mosaics of Venetian tiles; overhead is a Parisian-style stained-glass dome. The great stars of the opera have all sung here: Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti. Mikhail Baryshnikov called it "the most beautiful of the theaters I know."

Open for guided tours, the opera house is also home to the city's ballet and opera companies and three orchestras. A good seat for the opera costs about $35, or you can buy a cheap seat for little more than a dollar.

My favorite spot in the city: the riverside promenade in Puerto Madero, an old warehouse district turned into a modern, hip neighborhood. Hovering over the neighborhood like a giant bird about to take flight is a gleaming white footbridge designed by Santiago Calatrava, the highly lauded Spanish architect whose awards include the 2005 Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects. Calatrava, whose work was chosen for inclusion in the rebuilding at New York's World Trade Center site, has created a bridge that is a poetic vision of a tall ship, with teak flooring, lights reminiscent of portholes, and soaring beams and cables that are like masts and rigging. In the evening, lights from the bridge shimmer on the river. In the day, natural light bounces off the water and plays along the surface of the bridge.

The Estancia La Portena, about 90 miles outside Buenos Aires, is a vivid reminder of the great wealth and power once enjoyed by Argentine aristocrats. In the early 20th century, the estancia, or ranch, covered more than 23 square miles.

Today, the ranch occupies about 700 acres. Polo star Manuel Guiraldes, grandnephew of Argentine writer Ricardo Guiraldes, still trains polo ponies on the estancia, but takes in guests at the colonial-style home on the grounds. It is one of about 1,000 estancias in Argentina that allows guests to experience a taste of the aristocratic life, typically for about $90 per person per night, including meals, drinks and horseback riding.

We'll be staying down the road at La Bamba, the first estancia to open its doors to paying guests and one of three just outside the appealing little colonial town of San Antonio de Areco.

Manuel's wife, Queca, meets us outside the stables, where horses are being saddled, and shows us the grounds, including a Parisian-designed garden and stands of sycamore trees, pines and larches. The property is laced with riding trails. Inside, each guest room has a fireplace and is furnished with country antiques. Guests are also welcome to lounge and read in the studio where Guiraldes, who died in 1927, wrote his books about the life of the gauchos (Argentine cowboys), or in the living room where the writer's grand-nephew displays his polo trophies.

We head to our estancia, La Bamba, about 10 miles from La Portena. We turn up a long lane lined with towering sycamores, and enter the life of country ease. Hammocks hang between trees next to a swimming pool on the property's vast lawn. Hundreds of parrots and parakeets flit through the air; the aroma of roasted beef wafts from an open wood fire.

We're greeted by one of the owners, Isabel Aldao, who tells us we have time for a ride before lunch. As our horses trot along a dirt road on the vast empty plain, I feel as if I've entered a time warp. The feeling grows when we come within sight of Estancia El Ombu, where a colonial mansion built in 1880 by an Argentine general sits on a wide expanse of parklike lawn dotted with oaks, palms, eucalyptus, magnolias and a massive native tree, the ombu.

We take a quick tour of the elegant rooms and - still divided about which of the three estancias is best - ride back to La Bamba. There, employees have set up tables with white tablecloths on the lawn and are passing out hors d'oeuvres. With other guests who have come from Buenos Aires just for the day, we dine in the style of aristocrats, with wine from the area's malbec grapes and slow-roasted beef.

On our last day in the city, before an evening flight, I return to a shop near my hotel to try on a leather jacket I've admired all week. Turns out it doesn't fit. No problem, says the saleswoman. A seamstress appears, takes my measurements, offers me a selection of leather to choose from and heads to the factory. She promises me a tailored, handmade jacket, for $140, by 4 p.m.

While Pam goes off for a manicure, I settle in for English tea in an elegant tearoom in the Carlton Hotel. The world passes by the window outside my table in the room with mahogany wainscoting as I eat finger sandwiches, scones with cream, and jam and pastries from a tiered silver platter. It costs me about $7.

Normal life will soon overtake me when I head back home. But at the moment, I am feeling, and perhaps even looking, marvelous.

GETTING AROUND: An extensive bus and subway network offers cheap transport, with tickets starting at about 25 cents. Taxis are also a relative bargain: the meter starts at just over 50 cents. Don't flag down street taxis; call or hail radio cabs from reputable companies.

WHEN TO GO: Buenos Aires has a mild climate. Average temperatures in January, the hottest month: about 74 degrees. June, July and August are the coldest; average temperatures are about 50 degrees. Spring and fall are the best time to visit the city.

ESTANCIAS: The three guest estancias in San Antonio de Areco are Estancia la Bamba (011-54-2326-456-293, www.la-bamba.com.ar); El Ombu de Areco (011-54-11-4710- 2795, www.estanciaelombu.com); and Estancia la Portena (011-54-2326-453770, www.estancialaportenia.com.ar). Overnight visits - meals, tea and riding included - start at about $95 per person in a bedroom or apartment. You can also arrange to visit for the day and have lunch, then stay in the town of San Antonio de Areco, where a double room in the simple but pleasant La Aurora (387 Matheu, 011-54-2326-45-4219) begins at about $30 a night, including breakfast.

WHERE TO STAY: You can't go too wrong if you choose a hotel in the lively, centrally located neighborhoods of Centro, Retiro, Palermo or Recoleta. Prices for a double at the Reconquista Plaza (602 Tucuman, 011-54-11-4311-4600, www.reconquistaplaza.com.ar) begin at about $90 a night.

For the ultimate in luxury, the newly opened Faena Hotel (445 Martha Salotti in Puerto Madero, 011-54-11-4010-9000, www.faenahotelanduniverse.com) is stunning. Designer Philippe Starck teamed with Argentine clothing designer Alan Faena to turn an old warehouse into a boutique hotel. Double rooms start at $315 a night. Or better yet, sleep cheap and try a day pass to the Faena's luxurious Turkish bath.

INFORMATION: The governments of Buenos Aires and Argentina both have Web sites, at www.bue.gov.ar and www.turismo.gov.ar; or call the Argentina Tourism Office at (212) 603-0443.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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