June 11 2003 12:00 AM ET
The Real South: Buenos Aires and Montevideo
La Boca, colorful
and a little
Cosmopolitan Buenos Aires and cozy Montevideo are exciting—and currently extremely inexpensive—vacation destinations for curious travelers from the Northern Hemisphere.
Amid the kitsch pandemonium that surrounds Eva Peron, dire reports of economic collapse, tango fanaticism, and tales of gaucho machismo, Argentina is still a bit of a mystery for us in North America. It’s compelling but also distant and misunderstood, a place that shares the temperate seasonal variations prevalent in much of North America—but on a reversed calendar. Buenos Aires, the cosmopolitan capital of Argentina, isn’t the only place of interest for visitors to the Southern Cone, but it’s a vibrant and exciting city, and it’s certainly the obvious launching pad for trips around the region.
A plaza in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires today is an arresting mishmash of reference points. One minute you feel that you could be nowhere but Latin America, the next you could swear you are in Milan. If Buenos Aires is one-half Latin American, its one quarter Madrid and another quarter Rome. The Italian comparison isnt merely architectural. Its also in the porteño accent, a lilting cadence that on occasion sounds like Italian-accented Spanish. Argentines live in their Spanish, assuming first that tourists will speak their native tongue, and only adjusting to another language after discovering otherwise. To my ears, the sweetest element of the Buenos Aires accent is the rendering of the double "L" into a "zh" sound, so that "caballero" sounds like "cabazhero." Close your eyes and sound it out.
The Parisian apartment blocks, the Italian arcades, the Spanish feelthey all make Buenos Aires the most European city in the Americas. Forget Montréal, its got nothing on Buenos Aires. If you want to feel like youre in Europe without jetting across the Atlantic, Buenos Aires is the place to go. This sense is intensified by Buenos Airess very own European fetish, one manifestation of which was found in a sign at a music store denoting music by artists singing in "castellano," not in "español."
But to focus strictly on the Europeanness of Buenos Aires is also to misread it. Structurally speaking at least, Argentinas financial crisis is more of a Latin American phenomenonin recent economic termsthan a European one. In Buenos Aires today, children beg for money and adults pour through trash bags at night, while, less arrestingly, doleful faces line up outside of banks. The most recent economic reports note that over half of the Argentine population is living below the poverty line. At the same time, the sense of both middle-class presence and upper-class wealth in Buenos Aires is formidable. At the top end of the scale, there are plenty of matrons in Prada and tony boutiques in the richer neighborhoods; at the wide middle of the gamut, youll find one well-stocked market after another, and tons of obviously hip young people doing obviously hip things everywhere you look.
Museum of Latin American Art
The economy aside, Buenos Aires is the site of some stunning moments of pan-Latin American culture. One example can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Airesone of the most exciting museums of modern and contemporary art in the worldthat draw an arc from Argentina to Mexico. Another example can be found by simply turning on a music television channel and viewing a cluster of videos by Mexican political band Molotov, complete with Spanglish swear words and seething angry critiques unbleeped. In a different cultural vein, you might pick up the upwardly mobile lifestyle magazine Joy, with its pan-Latin American approach to fine dining and leisure. Ultimately, its this hybrid Latin American culture thats the most exciting element of Buenos Airessophisticated, cosmopolitan, and resolutely Latin American.
The gay scene in Buenos Aires is difficult to sight on the street, especially if you are using an American yardstick. Certainly, gay men and lesbians are visible. Along a Barrio Norte side street, two rivetingly hot bears gave me the twice over. Woof, caballeros. Gay nightclubs are clustered around Avenues Santa Fe and Pueyrredón, where the mood gets cruisier the later you stroll by. Glam (at Cabrera 3046) on Thursday and Saturday nights, and Palacio Alsina (at Alsina 940) on Friday nights, both get good reviews. I found Glam enticing and stylish, a casual gay boy crowd in a cozy and warm space. One club with a stronger lesbian presence is Bach Bar (at Cabrera 4390), open Tuesdays through Sundays. In all cases, learn the Argentine lesson that I had trouble mastering: Arrive late. A good benchmark is 2 a.m.
A dancer at the popular Amerika
If the gay scene is difficult to find outside of bars and the odd cruise, take solace in Buenos Aires city politics, where theres some substance to the question of gay rights. In December 2002 the Buenos Aires city council passed a measure recognizing same-sex civil unions and extending health insurance and pension rights to same-sex partners, which recently went into effect. So if you should meet a dashing porteña or porteño, get hitched, and work through the immigration maze, your health care and access to retirement benefits will be covered. Not something to sniff at, as we trudge through these long years of Republican congressional dominance.
Ultimately, however, youre likely not going to visit Buenos Aires for the nightclubs or for the city councils progressive legislative tendencies but for its beauty and unique personality of place. And you should expect to walk. On our visit, we let the city turn us inside out, allowing neighborhoods to direct our movements. Montserrat, Balvanera, Recoleta, and the aforementioned Barrio Norte, with its tree-lined streets and handsome men with sideways looks, were especially rewarding. Another satisfying walk took us the length of Avenida de la Mayo, starting at Casa Rosada, the Presidents Pink Palace.
And then theres La Boca. According to the tour guidesOK, OK, we booked one three-hour city tour, I admit itthe working class neighborhood of La Boca does double duty as both a daytime tourist trap and a nighttime danger zone. We did our best to distance ourselves from the trap while ignoring the danger zone warnings. Though guidebooks hint at the possibility of risk in some neighborhoods, we encountered none. There was one incredibly lame attempt to fleece us of a few pesos, but it was a deeply amateurish one, and we walked away unscathed. In place of danger, people were extremely friendly everywhere we went. Pedestrians stopped us randomly on the street to suggest restaurants. Waiters asked us what we thought of the war.
Crisscrossing Buenos Airess glorious neighborhoods was so satisfying in part because we kept our stomachs full. Even after a week of fantastic meals, a few cafés and restaurants stuck out. Blue Brown at 1350 Junin was hands down the best café we found in Buenos Aires. Café Tortoni, on the Avenida de la Mayo, is certainly drenched in more literary history than Blue Brown. With that literary history comes a degree of touristy-ness that tarnishes the overall appeal. Blue Brown is a quiet sanctuary on a quiet and tree-lined street. For more substantial sustenance, one star among many was the unfussy La Gran Taberna, in the shadow of the Congress building at the end of Avenida de la Mayo. La Gran Taberna served us an extremely filling lunch, which consisted of nothing but the waiters own recommendations.
For those who travel to shop, youll do very well in Buenos Aires today. Most consumer goods are considerably less expensive in Buenos Aires than in North America. Much of Buenos Airess middle and upper end shopping takes place in shopping malls, of which Patio Bullrich is perhaps the most impressive. Prices in the very upper-end shops will not be significantly less expensive than at home, so let go of that fly-to-the-Southern-Hemisphere-in-order-to-build-a-Helmut-Lang-wardrobe fantasy.
Especially interesting and enjoyable is the Buenos Aires Design Center, a stylish mall filled with home furnishing stores. Morph, located within it, carries mostly Argentine products. Its an ideal emporium for small and easily transportable gifts. Nearby, along the R.M. Ortiz pedestrian mall, theres another great place to pick up gifts that escape the imprint of the tourist industry: a large open air market where artisans sell art, clothes, jewelry, and dishware. I stocked up on wooden bowls, lugged to Buenos Aires by an indigenous man from the northern province of Salta.
I went to Buenos Aires with just one restaurant recommendation: the apparently posh Patagonia Sur, in La Boca. Our last night in Buenos Aires we grabbed a taxi in search of the highly touted restaurant. The concierge at our hotel urged us not to travel to La Boca on our own at night. We dismissed his urging as generic tourist-mindedness and found a patient taxi driver to take us to an X on a map. Sadly, X didnt mark the spot. Patagonia Sur was closed. After a few seconds of debate we found ourselves walking through the door of the most touristy of the restaurants we sampled in Buenos Aires, Corsario Ships Bar. As we ate good Italian food seasoned in unpredictable ways, a large party of tourists from Colombia was being entertained several tables over by a singer with a guitar. As our dinner ended, we bought his CD and he signed it for us, then stopped by our table to chat. It seems as if even our venture into heavily touristed territory was not without some benefits.
We somehow managed to avoid both the tango halls and the gaucho farmland. We were, however, less successful in avoiding Evita. At the Buenos Airess crazy upper-class cemetery, Recoleta Cemetery, we asked a cemetery worker if he could direct us to Evitas grave. He nodded resignedly and then walked briskly, alley by alley, toward it. A cluster of British tourists gathered around. It was obvious why we had come to see the grave, but once we stood in front of it, we lost a sense of what to do with ourselves. It seemed so odd, to just stand there in front of a cramped mausoleum. The British tourists chatted away, 21 years after the U.K. and Argentina engaged in a ridiculous war over a number of barely populated islands in the south Atlantic. Were we witnessing the power of rapprochement, the will to forget, or a message of peace and understanding, delivered by a musical? Well never know.
If Buenos Aires is all early 20th century Mediterranean, Montevideo, across the Plata River, is more reminiscent of the Eastern European 1960s. From Buenos Aires, we took a ferry to Colonia and then a bus over rolling green farmland to Montevideo. In the Uruguayan capital, stark office buildings and apartment blocks are the rule. Its a general aesthetic direction I fondly term "Yugostyle." Maligned by many, the ambitious functionality of these buildings is in dire need of widespread celebration.
Montevideo is also responsible for some odd if not unexpected design gems. The subterranean mausoleum for Artigas, the father of the Uruguayan nation, sits under the Plaza Independencia downtown. It is one such gem. During daytime hours, guards in ornate uniforms stand on either side of Artigas remains, holding rifles. The mausoleum is as 1970s modernist as a Moonraker set. Huge stone cubist lettering adorns the walls, celebrating the events of Artigas life in chronological order. Black marble reflects the sparse yet focused lighting. Its a stunning space, the kind of monument to nation-building that may seem absurd to citizens of the nation whose fathers remains it cradles. To those with some distance, its simply a beautiful, unexpected, majestic space. But Im getting ahead of myself.
We arrived at our hotel in Montevideo in the early afternoon. Knowing that time was of the essence, we dropped our bags off and grabbed a taxi to the Mercado del Puerto, where we quickly chose a restaurant stall and sat down. Lunch is the big meal in Uruguay, and the general buzz is that Montevideos Mercado del Puerto was the best place to eat well. To eat well means to eat huge slabs of barbecued beef. The waiter poured us sweet drinks of medio y medio, the Uruguayan sparkling wine drink that packs a punch. As soon as our lunch arrived, conversation died. It was a meal that would make PETA miserable. It consisted of a massive chunk of rare grass-fed beef, from a wood-burning oven, presumably additive-free. The seasoning was impossible to determine, and the taste was, if not otherworldly, at the very least entirely different from any beef I have ever tasted. It was such a deeply satisfying, delicious and ample lunch that by dinner we found ourselves interested only in snacking. We picked an outdoor café on the Plaza del Entrevero in downtown Montevideo and ate light food and drank Zillertal, one of Uruguays national beers.
In distinction to the Argentine willingness to celebrate Spanish, Uruguayans often offered English firsta sign I took to be an expression of that talented-small-nation-syndrome that one also finds in places like Denmark and Slovenia. Nowhere was this syndrome more evident than among the Uruguayans we spent time with. In Montevideo we were lucky to have made the acquaintance of some mutual friends: Juan Pablo, Alejandro, and Uraí. They provided some tourist information, but their guidance was mostly intellectual. We met at an unassuming restaurant in an upper class corner of the Punta Carretas neighborhood. Uraí gave us a somewhat detailed history of the Uruguayan social welfare state, while all three of our guides poured over the effects of the International Monetary Fund on the Uruguayan economy. We discussed travel, drugs, American imperialism, and the resort town of Punta del Este.
Later in the evening our guides took us to Espejismos (at Jackson 874, open Wednesdays through Sundays) a gay bar playing the best shiny dance pop music. The scene wasnt exactly bouncing yetit was still early, by Montevideo standards, at 1 in the morningbut there were plenty of cuties and that fantastic element of smaller-town queer life, namely, gay men and lesbians hanging out together.
We woke late the next morning and traipsed around the city, hunting for the best Tannat we could find. Tannat, a signature red wine of Uruguay, has a rich and strong taste. Check with a sommelier to get an oenophile description of Tannat. All I know is that its a delicious, deeply rich wine that goes well with beef and is often blended with Merlot.
We also went in search of the Uruguayan chivito sandwich, the fast food of choice in Montevideo. A chivito is simply a steak sandwich with a few token vegetables and bacon added. With specialties like these, its amazing that Uruguayans have the life expectancies that they do.
We spent the rest of the day wandering the Ciudad Vieja and the Microcentro, which together constitute downtown Montevideo. The Museo Torres Garcia, a tribute to once-exiled modernist Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres Garcia, provides a sweet entryway to Latin American modernism on the one hand and Uruguays sense of itself as a nation on the other. Since it was a warm, windy late summer day, we also found ourselves on the Ramblas, a long promenade along the citys coastline.
It is difficult if not impossible to gauge the emotional state of a place during a brief visit, but there is a sadness today in Montevideo more poignant than the prevailing mood in Buenos Aires. Its hard to know, as a traveler, how to gauge the emotions of the people you encounter, but its worth noting that until recently Uruguay had one of the very highest standards of living in the hemisphere, with life expectancy pushing 80, a stable cradle-to-grave social welfare system, and a very high level of home ownership. With these forms of security threatened by the economic downturn, the current crisis seems to cut deeper here than in Argentina.
A few hours before our hydrofoil took us back to Buenos Aires, I was sitting at a café. I recalled that I had met a middle-aged Uruguayan couple several years previously while traveling in Europe. I looked up their address in my address book and found that it was only a few blocks from the café. I walked over to the address and found a large house, somewhat out of place on a street filled mostly with apartment buildings. Hanging from the balcony was a huge sign advertising the house for sale, underscoring the quiet sense of sadness I glimpsed in Montevideo.
On the hydrofoil back to Buenos Aires, it hit me hard. This weeks excursion to these two capital cities was almost obscenely rushed. The pleasures of these urban centers are many, as are their poignancies, their tragedies, and their cultural complexities. Wed just barely pierced the surface. All I could think of was the three month trip Id love to take around the Southern Cone.
Still, no matter how briskly visited, Buenos Aires and Montevideo are worth a jaunt. For Americans, Buenos Aires and Montevideo will continue to be low-cost destinations as long as this economic crisis continues. Good meals seldom cost more than a few dollars per person, and a really expensive meal should not set you back more than $15 per person. Packages to Buenos Aires start at around $550 for five nights, accommodation and airfare from Miami included. With prices like these, its tempting to forgo Hawaii or Paris for a different kind of cosmopolitan rush.