Buenos Aires deserves every bit of attention it has been garnering in the last year -- reigning over numerous top-ten lists, with coverage by every major travel magazine, some in consecutive issues. The city has always been extremely beautiful -- with its glamorous residents; elegant parks and Beaux Arts buildings; and the near-constant breeze that blows up and down its wide boulevards, arcaded by waxy-leafed trees. It's the exchange rate, though -- three pesos to a dollar -- that makes the 10-hour flight most worth the trouble these days. Basically, you're three times richer there than here. And while the food and wine have always been exceptional, lately a three-course meal for two in a great restaurant is $30, including tip. And for that $15 a head, you get, say, a big, beautiful salad and homemade bread, followed by pasta rolled on the premises, followed by a thick, tender, steak, washed down with a great bottle of Malbec. It's almost too good to be true.
A few critical points, however, don't seem to be making their way into lots of the coverage. They'll help you make the most of your time and money in this singular but faraway destination.
Buenos Aires has a growing number of intimate, chic, bed & breakfast-type guesthouses for $20 to $60 a night (U.S. dollars). Unlike American B&Bs -- which so often are fusty and cluttered with bric-a-brac and cats -- BA's tend to have hip, young owners with very clean, cosmopolitan taste; many owners, in fact, are designers of some sort who open their homes to the traveling public. The places tend to be airy and bright, and many have Spanish-style interior gardens and patios. Unless you demand the ultimate in five-star luxury, I'd venture the guesthouses are nicer than most hotels charging three or four times the price. They also proffer the most "authentic" experience; given their size, you can't help but have a more personal exchange with the owners and other guests. Yet the atmosphere can be as communal or private as you like. Many offer weekly and monthly rates as well.
For a selective list of properties and their websites, explore Stay in Buenos Aires (www.stayinbuenosaires.com.ar/english.html). Many of the best digs are in San Telmo -- which was the city's ritzy neighborhood in the 19th century, with the architectural interiors you see in tango photo spreads. The three sections of Palermo -- Palermo Viejo, Palermo Soho, and Palermo Hollywood -- also have many great guesthouses. This neighborhood is the hub for young creative types -- especially designers. Just by investigating their beautiful, with-it websites, you'll get a sense of what these places have over the five-star marble palaces.
Last February, for $40 a night with a private bath, I stayed in Casa Monserrat (www.casa-monserrat.com), one of the city's surprisingly few Spanish Colonial-style structures. From the front door, you enter an interior garden, with Spanish tile floors and a thirty-foot tall brick wall, flourishing with vines and flowers, and running the length of the place. The rooms radiate off the garden and vary in size. All are simple and lovingly appointed, painted in rich reds, roses, and yellows, "for good feng shui," says Silvina, the serene, friendly Argentine owner. The block is dodgy, so they keep a doorman on-hand round the clock to open the thick, arched, formidable entrance door, worthy of a castle or fortress, which only makes the interior seem like more of an oasis. Request the suite with private balcony on the second floor.
We also recommend: Casa Vaiven (http://casavaiven.com), a bright, open loft with rooms, owned by an Argentine German couple, in San Telmo. For a private bath, it's $35 a day; $220 a week; and $735 a month. You can also rent an apartment with bath and kitchen for $40 a day; $250 a week; and $840 a month. Solar Soler Bed and Breakfast (www.solarsoler.ar.com), a hundred-year-old colonial brick house in Palermo Hollywood. All rooms have private bathrooms; rates are $45-$60 a night. Lina's Tango Guesthouse (www.tangoguesthouse.com.ar), in San Telmo. Single rooms are $20-$30 a night; doubles are $30-$50. Tango, salsa, and chacarera lessons are available on the premises. Che Lulu (www.luluguesthouse.com), between Palermo Soho and Palermo Viejo. Doubles with private bath are $33. Naranjo en Flor (www.stayinbuenosaires.com.ar/naranjo_e.html) in San Telmo. All rooms have shared baths. Double rooms are $27 a day, $170 a week, and $650 a month.
However European Buenos Aires is, it's not bilingual. Before you go, brush up on your Spanish, or at least learn a few essential phrases; you'll need them. Even if you're fluent, bring a small food phrase book. Except in the very best restaurants, menus are usually written exclusively in idiomatic Spanish.
It's also worth noting a few critical differences in Argentine Spanish. Double lls, usually pronounced as ys, are often pronounced as sh, as in shoe. So the word rollo (usually pronounced royo, with long os) sounds like rosho. Even if you're fluent, this difference can send you searching for a street called Vashe, when in fact it's spelled Valle.
Argentineans also use this peculiar form of the singular second-person familiar: Instead of saying tÂ¿ eres (you are), they usually say vos sos. Go figure. And they only use ustéd to show respect for an old person, so you can inadvertently insult someone by using ustéd -- which is usually the safe choice in other Spanish-speaking countries.
Dollars are in much greater use than English. You're guaranteed a better rate with pesos, but dollars are accepted in many places, on a three-to-one basis. If you're paying cash of any kind, shop owners may lower prices for you. It never hurts to ask.
Overrated Tourist Traps
The historic neighborhood called Boca, on the old waterfront, is sort of a requisite stop: It's where tango originated, and the buildings are old and quaint, made of brightly painted tin. Know, though, that you will be nearly assaulted by aggressive souvenir hawkers and restaurant owners desperate to lure you into their establishment. You'll really need a drink after even a half-hour here, but you'll spend three times what you'd pay anywhere else in town. And if you dare ask for extra ice in your glass, they'll charge you $3 for it.
The Sunday flea market in San Telmo, which is also widely recommended, is a fun scene, but the goods are highly overpriced. You'll also wade through an awful lot of junk. In other words, don't put off a weekend side trip to IguazÂ¿ or an estancia in the pampas, because you can't bear to miss what everybody says is an awesome flea market; it's not. If you're around that day, stop by, but don't put off other things because of it. San Telmo's antiques stores, on the other hand, are better, and worthy of exploration, even if you can't afford to ship furniture to the United States. They're not cheap either, but the goods are of higher quality, and tell a certain story about the city.
Prepare for it. Buenos Aires is only an hour ahead of eastern standard time (two hours ahead during our winter, because they don't observe daylight savings), but their dining schedule will throw your biorhythms completely out of whack. On weekdays, porteños typically dine around 9:30, and restaurants are still at full tilt come 11 o'clock. On weekends, it's an hour or two later than that. This usually guarantees you'll stay up until two or three o'clock in the morning, whether or not you're dancing off your dinner at tango milongas. Eat that way for a week, and it's like traveling to a time zone four or five hours ahead of ours.
Everyone knows that porteño leather goods are beautifully designed and inexpensive. Most travel guides point you to a couple of shops downtown, however, when there's a whole leather outlet district outside the standard tourist routes. It's best to go there by cab. The main store is on Calle Murillo 666. Once there, you can't miss the warren of seven or eight streets and side streets with shops selling leather coats, bags, shoes, and purses. Prices are cheaper there, off the beaten track, and the selection is vastly greater.
Getting There Affordably
At the moment, the cheapest airfares to Buenos Aires, on Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) -- for midweek travel departing the last week of April, returning the first week of May -- are as follows: $663 from New York on Avianca, with one stop; $873 from Chicago on United nonstop; and $674 from Los Angeles on Lan Peru with one stop.
The cheapest air-hotel package is Travel Land's "Deluxe Buenos Aires" (tel. 800/321-6336; www.traveland.com) with its round-trip air and six nights at the four-star Amerian Congreso Hotel are $599, from Miami ($699 from New York; $799 from Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles; and $949 from Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco). The price includes transfers, a half-day city tour as well as a shopping tour, entrance to Casino Flotante, one dinner, daily buffet breakfast, and a few other perks. Taxes of $160 are not included.
Gate 1 Travel (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) is running a seven-night special to Buenos Aires and Rio for $999 from Miami. This price is good for September 17 departures only. For other departure dates the rate rises to $1,069 to $1,179. You'll stay at the three-star Waldorf in Buenos Aires, near the downtown shopping district, and three-star Augusto's Copacabana in Rio. For better hotels, you can pay from $1,239 to $1,479. The price includes three nights in Rio, three nights in Buenos Aires, six breakfasts, one dinner, transfers, and a half-day city tour. Other guided tours, including dinner with a tango show, are optional, for an extra charge. Rates don't include taxes and fees up to $200.
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