It took me by surprise to slide into the back seat of one of Buenos Aires’ distinctive yellow cabs and find my driver was Che Guevara. But, there he was, unmistakably one of Argentina’s most famous sons, wearing a red-starred beret and sporting the exact same facial hair. He caught my eye through the rear mirror, between the dangling Cuban flags and ‘Hasta la Victoria Siempre’ (‘Forever Onwards Towards Victory’) stickers. I returned his gentle “buenos noches”, told him where I was heading and wondered how long to politely wait before stating the obvious. “So,” I finally said into the silence, as we slowed to a crawl behind a clattering bus. “I see you like El Che.”
I soon discover this get-up was no gimmick. My driver worshipped Che to the same extent most of his compatriots do their beloved football team. He earnestly explained his politics and his pilgrimages to Cuba every few years. I was intrigued as to how passengers react to this daily display of devotion. “Many are interested,” he explained. “A few people don’t like him; they jump straight out again. One man was rude about him; I insisted he got out.”
I tried to imagine what a tourist, arriving in Argentina for the first time, might think if they stepped into this taxi, fresh off the plane. They might well think: whatever next? Messi as my bellboy? Pope Francis at the check-in desk? Off-the-wall taxistas are no rarity in these parts, but the fake Che was different. That short encounter somehow spoke volumes about Buenos Aires itself — a city built so heavily on myth, pride and polemic. This is not a city that shies away from its most famous, most controversial icons. If anything, they’re becoming bigger. Sometimes literally. Drive down the enormous, 14-lane 9 de Julio Avenue, which cuts through downtown, and you’ll be greeted by a 100ft-tall iron portrait of former first lady Eva Perón, her hair pulled back into her trademark chignon. Indeed, if you fancy playing Argentine bingo, you get two icons in one go by ticking off the giant Evita from the window of the yellow-and-blue Maradona Terrace Suite at the football-themed Hotel Boca.
Almost all the capital’s cliches were recently captured in Soy Buenos Aires (‘I am Buenos Aires’) — a video clip that did the rounds online and which personified the city and all its angst. “I am proud memories of what is gone; I am the promised future that never came,” says the mustachioed gent besides the stained-glass window of an old cafe, as the heart-wrenching accordion music of tango great Astor Piazzolla plays in the background. Cynics may roll their eyes and say this plays to stereotypes, but it’s a great, unofficial — and unintentional — tourist campaign. Anyone who’s been immediately pictures themselves in one of the historic cafes, sipping a cortado coffee or cold Quilmes beer. (The 110-year-old Cafe Margot in the Boedo neighbourhood is my current favourite — where locals come to read the papers over turkey sandwiches, with no sign of a MacBook or a flat white.)
There’s a deep-seated belief that porteños — as the residents are known — never got over their city’s fall from being one of the richest cities in the world in the early 20th century, to being stuck on the periphery, limping from one financial crisis to the next. But to reduce Buenos Aires to being a city stuck in, or obsessed with, the past would be unfair. This is surely one of the world’s most creative capitals.
Rougher-round-the-edges San Telmo is also a favourite, with its bohemian bars, arts studios and buskers. The ramshackle streets are packed with visitors on Sundays for the flea market on Calle Defensa. For a quieter shopping experience, try the covered market on any other day of the week, for sifting through racks of secondhand books, 100-year-old maps and tango lyric sheets. From here you can also take a little detour to the Buenos Aires Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a beautiful former cigarette factory; the number ‘43’, embossed throughout the red-bricked frontage, was a tobacco brand.
Downtown, in the neon-drenched theatre district of Avenida Corrientes, people watching in the by-the-slice pizza restaurants is entertainment in its own right. To soak up some history, call in at Plaza de Mayo, home to the pink-hued government palace and a permanent home of flag-waving demonstration, either for or against the president. This is also where the mothers of the young people who ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship (1976-1983) held their weekly march for justice; hence the head-scarf silhouettes painted on the plaza’s pavement.
Recoleta is the most upmarket neighbourhood, best known for the grand cemetery of the same name, where Evita is buried. At the other end of the scale, there’s La Boca, home to the vibrantly painted coloured houses you see in all the guidebooks, and the Boca Juniors football team.
Where to eat
Which is why I was taken aback when, on a recent visit, a porteño told me he thought the asado had been bad for the evolution of Argentine food. He must have seen the shock in my eyes, as he immediately explained, “what I mean is it’s just too good. People didn’t need anything else; they forgot
The person talking was Gonzalo Robredo, owner of the Hub Porteño hotel in Recoleta. The head chef at its high-end restaurant, Tarquino, is Dante Liporace, an alumnus of Spain’s elBulli. He specialises in putting a molecular twist on Argentine classics — think deconstructed pizza and dulce de leche foam (albeit not together). Ordering Tarquino’s nine-course tasting menu gave me plenty of time to mull over Robredo’s point. Putting a slab of world-class steak over coals is, after all, hard to beat. Indeed, some of the best nights you can have in Buenos Aires are at a neighbourhood parrilla.
Robredo does, however, think times are changing and the new Argentine cuisine has really taken off. Chefs like Dante are training with the best culinary talent abroad, then putting their new skills into practice at home. See also Germán Martitegui, at Tegui (a high-end dining room hidden behind a graffiti-covered frontage) and Fernando Rivarola at El Baqueano (which specialises in exotic meats such as llama, alligator and rhea).
Music & nightlife
And what of the famed tango scene? Beyond the glitzy dinner shows, it’s a borderline cult for those who get sucked in. Once, at a party, I was asked in all seriousness, how I managed to fill my time in Buenos Aires if I didn’t tango. These people live for the nights at the milonga (tango club), where they happily dance with friends and strangers until dawn.
Whether you dance or not, milongas are worth a visit (La Viruta and La Catedral are among the liveliest), but there’s more to Buenos Aires than tango. With its emotive lyrics and soft guitars, folk music from the country’s north west makes for a very different night out, especially at Peña Los Cardones, where there are live performances. There’s also cumbia villera, catchy dance music that sprung from the villas (Argentina’s favelas). If you’ve ever seen footballer Carlos Tevez snaking his hips to celebrate a goal, it’s cumbia he’s channelling. You hear its beat pump out of the more down-to-earth clubs, or from Niceto Club, which plays host to top electro-cumbia DJs.
If you’re into browsing as much as buying, then hours can be spent at the city’s artisan markets. Head to the less-visited Colegiales neighbourhood, where the Mercado de las Pulgas (where Dorrego Avenue and Conde Street meet) is filled with temptation, from art deco mirrors to vintage Disney toys. If you’re a fan of distressed-wood furniture, you may find yourself dreaming of hiring a shipping container.
Argentina’s finances are not in a good way again, but if you’re wise with your currency exchange, your cash will go far. The government has put in various restrictions to stop residents swapping all their savings for dollars, which means dollars are now highly sought after. Two rates of exchange have emerged — the official one (currently eight pesos to the dollar) and the ‘blue’ one (14 pesos). The official one is what you’ll get from an ATM or official bureau de change; the unofficial one is changed in a cueva (unofficial exchange office) or over the counter.
“No one wants to advise people to change money the unofficial way,” the owner of a very respectable boutique hotel told me. “But what can you do when people are asking?” It’s become the way of life here. Visitors should quickly familiarise themselves with both rates (every Argentine knows them) and arrive bearing dollars.
Once these practicalities are out of the way, it’s easy to unwind in Buenos Aires. Porteños complain how stressful and hectic the city is, but, aside from bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic, visitors rarely get a sense of this. One of the most wonderful things about the city is it allows complete spontaneity. If you see a poster for an event that week, the likelihood is it’s not yet sold out; the top restaurants in town don’t need to be booked months in advance; and you don’t have to get up early to join any queues. Far from being stuck in the past, Buenos Aires is the ultimate live-in-the-moment city. And once you’ve been, it’s likely to keep drawing you back.
British Airways has the only direct UK flight, from Heathrow.
Average flight time: 11h.
From the airport, Tienda León runs a shuttle service. Buenos Aires has the Subte metro system, an extensive bus network and metered yellow taxis.
When to go
Spring (late September-early December) and autumn (March-May) are best. Mid-summer (late December-February) is very hot and humid, often topping 30C.
Need to know
Currency (official): Argentine Peso (ARS). £1 = 13.41ARS.
Health: Speak to your GP about vaccinations at least six weeks before departure; a yellow fever jab is advisable for the north east.
International dial code: 00 54 11.
Time difference: GMT -3.
How to do it
Journey Latin America has eight days in Buenos Aires, including transfers, B&B accommodation and flights, from £1,187 per person, based on two people sharing.
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)