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From Buenos Aires to Antarctica
and gay adventure
await in Argentina
With the only same-sex domestic-partnership law of any South American metropolis, the home of Evita Peron is one of the most attractive destinations in Latin America for gay and lesbian tourists. South of the capital, more adventure awaits, from romantic Patagonia to the surreal beauty of Antarctica.
"Sorry, I'll be later than I thought. After all, it's not every day I get to play with Evita's dresses!"
This was me on the phone to my friend Marcos, calling him once again to say I would be even later for the dinner party he and his boyfriend, Pedro, were throwing while I was visiting them in Buenos Aires.
I then continued my discussion with Gabriel Miremont, the openly gay curator of Museo Evita, and Maria Victoria Faraone, the museum's publicist: "Let's look at the box with her hats!"
Somewhere along the line, they also found an old bottle of her perfume in the clothing archives. Well, wouldn't trying some of that on and having everyone at the party smell my arm be the ultimate "only in Buenos Aires" story? This visit to the Museo Evita was certainly turning out to be the highlight of many highlights on my Argentina trip.
When I was 10, the stage musical Evita came to Broadway and my obsession began. My baby sister and I used to sing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" from a balconied alcove in our dining room. But though I begged my mother to take me to see the show, her answer was, "I'm not taking you to see that play. Just think of what you would grow up to be like if I took a 10-year-old boy to see an immoral play like that!" Of course, it was proper enough for her to see, as the Playbill I cherished attested to.
Little did my mother know that even if she didn't take me, I would still grow up to be the world's biggest Evita freak. I never did get to see that play on Broadway, but much better than that, I got as close to Evita as you can today. I got to touch her clothes and smell her perfume. I was even tempted to wear her hats and find a balcony to sing from, but then I thought Gabriel and Maria would really think I was a weirdo. Maybe I really have grown up to be my mother's own Evita nightmare.
Now, you probably won't have the exact experience I had: My personal tour of the Evita archives was strictly because of my journalist credentials, and not my Evita-freak tendencies. Still, the Museo Evita, tucked into an elegant old house where Evita used to help single mothers and their children, is a Buenos Aires must-do.
The museum is mainly objective, but it's obvious that love is behind the presentation. A good eye will notice too that in spite of Evita's claims to humility, her vanity comes through: Her name adorns everything from medical goods to children's toys. Evita's ultimate attempt to stamp her image on Argentina is demonstrated by the model of Evitaville, a planned community near the airport, which when seen from the air shows her profile. Could it all have just been for the people? It's up to you decide, and in the words of Gabriel, "For hate or for love, you know something of Evita," after visiting the museum. His goal is to make her more than just the "Warhol image" she has become to most people. (Lafinur 2988; 011-54-11-4807-9433; www.evitaperon.org)
The Best of Buenos Aires
It's not all about Evita here. With the recent drop in the Argentine peso to one third of its former value, tourists are coming in droves to discover Buenos Aires's charms. There's plenty for them to see in the city that Portenos, as Buenos Aires citizens call themselves, love so much.
The city bears a strong resemblance to Paris, and it's no accident. At the turn of the 20th century, marble belle epoque buildings went up by the thousands. Avenida de Mayo is the most intact example of this construction frenzy, with the imposing Congreso on one end and the Presidential Palace, or Casa Rosada, on the other. That's where Evita made her famous speeches.
The palace overlooks the Plaza de Mayo, where office workers come for lunch and demonstrators come to protest. Thursday afternoon, many people come to see the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo speak. These are the mothers of men and women who disappeared during the "dirty war," when the military government murdered or kidnapped 30,000 people it considered dissidents. Only now, under the new President Kirschner, have their cries been heard, and the men who murdered their children may now come to trial.
Historic buildings surround the plaza, like the Metropolitan Cathedral with its ornamented tomb of national hero General San Martin. While you're here, try to make time for the Manzana de las Luces Tour through underground tunnels and other colonial sites. No one knows for certain the original reason for the mysterious tunnels, but they were probably used for smuggling goods when Spain ruled, and may have been for hiding from British pirates (Peru 272; 011-54-11-4342-6973).
The most noticeable feature of Buenos Aires is Avenida 9 de Julio, the world's widest boulevard. In the middle is the postcard-ready Obelisk, a city symbol built in 1936 to celebrate the city's founding 400 years earlier. It marks the intersection of the Avenida with Corrientes, the location of the city's theater district. Close by is the Teatro Colon, an opera house where some of the world's best singers perform and you can catch high-quality shows for as little as $7. Tours also take you to the costume and dance practice rooms (9 de Julio at Viamonte; 011-54-11-4378-7344).
The Fine Arts Museum has a good collection of Argentine and European art, including Picasso drawings (Avenida del Libertador 1473; 011-54-11-4803-8814). Evita freaks will want to head to the nearby Evita Monument in Recoleta. Her final resting place is in Recoleta Cemetery. Finding her is easy: Just follow the crowds, but make sure to take notice of all the other beautiful tombs of the infinitely less famous people who once lived here.
Around the corner from here is the luxury shopping center Buenos Aires Design, full of fabulous stores. My favorite was Puro Diseno Argentino . This chic store carries strictly Argentine-designed and -produced high-quality clothes and home accessories. It's the perfect guilt-free opportunity to boost the local economy (Terraza Buenos Aires Design; Avenida Pueryredon 2501; 011-54-11-5777-6104). More shopping is along the pedestrian-only streets of Florida and Lavalle in the MicroCentro District. Galerias Pacifo is a shopping gallery here with beautiful ceiling murals.
Gays and lesbians have always had a presence in Argentina, even before it was safe to come out. In fact, were it not for us, no one might have ever heard of the tango or Evita. We've come a long way though from the early days, and now Buenos Aires is the only major city in all of Latin America with a same-sex civil unions law.
One of Argentina's national heroes is Carlos Gardel. He single-handedly made the tango both Argentina's national dance and famous throughout the world. Rumor has it he might have been gay, but the country has yet to come to terms with that. Numerous biographers bring up the subject only to deny it, but evidence and appearances suggest otherwise. Gardel was a master of subterfuge; it's not even known where he was born--it could have been France, it could have been Uruguay. If he refused to divulge something as basic as his birthplace, why tell all about his sexuality?
Cesar Cigliutti, the president of Comunidad Homosexual de Argentina, the gay rights organization behind Buenos Aires's civil unions law, says of Gardel, "There are many old friends in Spain who say they were his boyfriend." Like our own Jazz Age, the 1920s and '30s tango heyday was a period of excess and experimentation. Marcelo Suntheim, Cigliutti's lover and the CHA secretary, mentions that "in this context, it is possible" that a gay subculture was tolerated in Buenos Aires. That tolerant atmosphere likely enabled Evita to surround herself with gay men while she struggled to become the country's top model and actress. Cigliutti tells me that early in her political career, Evita came to a gay hairdresser friend on a bad hair day before making one of her first speeches. He pulled her hair into a bun, and voila, the famous hairstyle we associate with her was born.
Gabriel from the Museo Evita told me more about Senora Peron's collection of gay friends. Most notorious at the time was the designer Paco Llamandreu, hated by many in Buenos Aires society because he was openly gay and for his sharp temper. Miremont thinks Evita connected with gay men because of her own struggles: "She had a good relationship with gay people, because she had more or less the same problem: She was not accepted by society at first." As a woman, she equally understood repression. Women did not even have the right to vote until 1947, after Juan Peron came to power.
One of her friends was involved in a tabloidesque scandal. Miguel de Molina, a popular Spanish actor and singer, was forced to leave the country after a gay affair gone bad. Like Gardel, though, Evita obscured facts about her early life, so she probably had more gay friends. Miremont is trying to uncover more about this period of her life. So if you meet some very old gay men who speak of hanging with a certain Miss Eva Duarte in 1930s nightclubs, pass their names along to Miremont.
Military repression were the order of the day once Evita died in 1952 and Juan was forced from power in 1955. Still, the Frente de Liberacion Homosexual formed in 1970. Its most famous member was Manuel Puig, author of Kiss of the Spider Woman, a novel detailing life during the "dirty war." Freedom of sexual expression came in an odd way to Argentina: It was the 1982 defeat by Great Britain in the Falkland Islands War that's credited with allowing CHA to form.
The Buenos Aires Gay Pride Parade is the first Saturday of November, running along Avenida de Mayo. This route is "a political, cultural tradition" for all Argentina, Cigliutti says. The event marks the formation on November 1, 1967 of the Argentine Nuevo Mundo--the short-lived but first known gay group in South America. An additional rally is held in June.
The civil unions law was CHA's most important victory. Gays and lesbians in Argentina have made tremendous strides in just the past five years, both socially and commercially. While Cigliutti says, "A film is not a revolution," the movie Plata Quemada (2000, released in the United States as Burnt Money) was part of the process. This erotic movie, the true story of gay 1960s bank robbers, was one of the country's biggest hits.
The civil unions bill was officially signed into law in May 2003. CHA plans now to create a national antidiscrimination law to protect the GLBT workforce. "We want the same rights as the rest of society; it's a step-by-step process," Cigliutti says. Cigliutti and Suntheim became the first gay couple to register under the civil unions law. Miremont and his lover, Juan Jose Ganduglia, the curator of the Presidential Museum, became the third.
A Gay Night Out
So what should you do with all this freedom that Argentines have fought for? Party it up and go out for dinner and dancing. At the same time you can support a principle Evita fought for: helping the descamisados. Literally "the shirtless ones," the phrase refers to the poor--although there are also plenty of bare-chested Latin hunks who voluntarily lose their shirts while sweating on the dance floor.
A "fashion show" at the Titanic
More of the "fashion show" at the Titanic
For a really gay dinner, head to Chueca. The food is not great, but everyone comes here to gawk anyway (Soler 3283; 011-54-11-4963-3420; $20 for two dinner with wine). Titanic is one of the newest places in town. It's sleek and small, but its operators hope to change Buenos Aires's gay nightlife. It opens at 7, offering tapas and other meals and after-work drink specials, something unheard of here (Avenida Callao 1156; 011-54-11-4816-1333).
Palacio is the latest thing and was all the talk when I was in town. It's gay only on Fridays and Sundays, so plan accordingly. (Alsina 934). Contramano is the city's oldest gay club (Rodriguez Pena 1082).
While it struck me as tired, at least the small cabaret Punto G is crowded. When a weekday bar crawl fails, this is where everyone winds up (Anchorena 1347; 011-54-11-4829-0664). Glam has been part of the scene for a few years, and it's comfortably girl-friendly. If time management is your thing, head to Tom's. Rumor has it that the layout influenced the design of the Evita museum, since both are equipped with mirrored, dark rooms (Viamonte 638, basement floor; 011-54-11-4322-4404).
La Otra Guia and Mapa Gay Bleu can be found in many bars and clubs, or download the map from www.bleucards.com.ar. Imperio is the national gay magazine. Also check out www.nexo.org and www.gayinbuenosaires.com.ar.
A Gay Place to Stay
Photo courtesy of El Lugar Gay
El Lugar Gay means "The Gay Place" in Spanish, and it certainly is. Best of all, it's in the tango neighborhood, San Telmo. It's a small, historic property with seven guest rooms, each with private bath in the range of $40 a night (La Defensa 1120; 011-54-11-4300 4747). Even if you don't stay there, it's a de facto community center, with its cafe and Sunday night gay tango classes from 7 to 9 run by Edgardo Gargano. You can find out more on the lessons by contacting Edgardo at 011-54-11-4912-0900 or E-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has also started a new gay tango hall called La Marshall.
Howard Johnson's has gone for the pink peso and is used by some of the local gay travel companies. It has two locations: one in the pedestrianized shopping zone (Florida 944; 011-54-11 4891-9200; $70 a night) and another in a quieter location (Bartolome Mitre 2241; 011-54-11-4952-2695; $140). I stayed at the Lafayette Hotel, a midsize four-star establishment in the MicroCentro. It's a convenient bargain in the $45-$60 range (Reconquista 546; 011-54-11-4393-9081).
The business-class hotels Crillon or Claridge offer more luxury at a great price. The very British Claridge is close to the Financial District and Plaza de Mayo. Hotel Crillon overlooks Plaza San Martin and is only blocks from Florida. Both hotels run at about $90.00 through early 2004 (1-800-223-5652).
Dripping with gold leaf, the Alvear Palace offers total luxury and service, and it has been a dream of mine to stay there. That dream finally came true on a recent trip. I even had a butler. So if you really would like to spoil yourself in style, the Alvear is the place for you. Another great service they offer is a "jet-lag massage." After a flight of at least 10 hours, you'll need it, and it's a super bargain considering the location: only $10 for 20 minutes. You may think you're a shopping expert, but the Alvear thinks they can do you better. One of their services is a shopper program, where either someone takes you to all the best shops or someone simply does all the shopping for you (Avenida Alvear; 011-54-11-4808-2100; $200 to $3,000).
The Four Seasons is a more subdued luxury hotel and was where Madonna stayed when filming Evita (1996). The property is split in two: a modern tower and an old mansion that can also be rented out. It comes equipped with the balcony on which Madonna rehearsed that famous scene (Posadas 1086; 011-54-11-4321-1200; $300 to $3,500).
I've also stayed at the Hilton in Puerto Madero, a little bit removed from the main city, but near tons of great restaurants in this revitalized former port area. It also offers fabulous views of the city skyline (011-54-11-4891-0000; $190 to $2,600).
Historic San Telmo is Buenos Aires's tango headquarters. The magazines B.A. Tango and El Tangauta list spots for here and all over town. Best to come on a Sunday, when there are free tango demonstrations in Plaza Dorrego during the antiques fair. Tourist-friendly lessons can be taken at the Escuela Argentina de Tango (011-54-11-4312-4990), located in the Galerias Pacifico. The best time to see tango is during the annual World Tango Festival, held in early March. They even block off streets and let thousands of people tango until the sun comes up. Being here for that was like watching Buenos Aires dreaming of itself.
You'll hear lots about the show Senior Tango, which I have always been prejudiced against, having had the wonderful experience of seeing secret tango spaces natives like to go to. I finally did see the show, and while it closed with a corny "Don't Cry for Me," aimed at the tourists, there was great dancing, singing, and music, with a superb orchestra. The sex quotient, of course, is high, complete with even a simulated lesbian orgy sex scene, where the Fosse-esque dancers pretend to kiss while stroking each other up and down. Then their boyfriends come and smack them around. I'm not sure of the message there. Plus I felt corralled with all the other tourists, kept in crowded pens watching the show. My suggestion? Go to this if you must, but balance it with a visit to a real tango hall where only Argentines go.
Finally, and most important, there is a new all-gay tango hall, also known as a milonga. It's run by Roxana and Edgardo Gargano, a brother and sister team. Called La Marshall, it is for now only Wednesday nights. For more info, contact them at email@example.com or call 011-54-11-47745470. The location may change, but the current one is Avenida Cordoba 4185.
The Deep South: Patagonia and Antarctica
You could spend your whole vacation in Buenos Aires, as I did my first time here three years ago. Or you could use the fact that everything is an incredible bargain and see even more, including Antarctica.
The state of Patagonia makes up most of the southern portion of Argentina. When I was planning my trip, I remembered all those images from high school geography, and my fantasy was that if I came here, I would meet handsome gauchos who would give me glasses of the traditional drink, mate, and then give me themselves. That crazy dream did not come true, but I did find adventure of all kinds in Patagonia.
The most popular resort is Bariloche. It likens itself to Switzerland, with its Alpine setting and at times cheesy Teutonic architecture. There's not much to do in town unless you like shopping for chocolate for hours, so it's the surroundings that most people come for. In South American winter (our summer) this is one of the continent's premier ski resorts. In warmer weather, people hike or go for scenic drives like the Circuito Chico. I stayed at Hotel Edelweiss in the center of town, equipped with a spa that's the perfect after-hiking reward (011-54-2944-426-165). A really luxurious option is Llao Llao, with the same owners as the Alvear Palace. Its remote location means a renting a car is a must, but if you can afford this place, that is not an issue (011-54-2944-448-530).
More wild is Calafate, a tiny town less than an hour from fantastic glaciers on the Chilean border. I got to climb a glacier and see a myriad of others in the enormous lakes dotting the region. My friends Marcos and Pedro found the place so inspiring, it renewed their love life. I myself found love on an iceberg cruise among the lakes and glaciers. I'll leave you to wonder which of the cute guides got to see more than just the tip of my iceberg when the ship landed. The glaciers move as rapidly as the guides, and this is one of the best places in the world to watch them. The most amazing is Perito Mereno, which roars and moans as the ice progresses, forming icebergs before your eyes. You can even climb it, putting you onto an all-white, moon-like landscape. I hung here with two Dutch lesbians who helped me butch it up on the ice, considering I never was really outdoorsy. My hotel here was the El Quijote (011-54-2902-491-017).
Little can compare to Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city, hemmed in by mountains overlooking a spectacular bay. Without exaggeration, I can say I saw some of the best sunrises in my life here from my room at the Hotel Los Nires, perched on a cliff (011-54-2901-445-173). The town offers diversions like the Tren del Fin del Mundo ("the train at the end of the world"), an old prison train with very handsome men in vintage clothing acting as porters.
This is the world's most important gateway to Antarctica, with a few hundred boats of various sizes making the trip each season. Most voyages last 10 days, and the crossings can be rough, but any seasickness is worth what I saw. My boat was full of Dutch people, so I got to learn the Dutch words for things like whale and seal--not that those terms will be that useful on a trip to Amsterdam. The company I used was OceanWide , with U.S. and Dutch offices. Along the way we visited scientific stations, some dating to the beginning of the 20th century, when they began as whaler's hideouts. We would be the last people from the outside world that the scientists at the Ukrainian station we visited would see for nine months. Imagine such a life.
There were penguins galore of various species, but the nonscientist in me can tell you nothing more than that they are cute. They also smell really bad. We took expeditions on small boats while whales swam all around us, as curious about us as we were about them. All of this was in the midst of beautiful iceberg fields, each one looking like modern art sculpted by winds and waves. I was here when the war in Iraq started, seemingly as far from the world's problems as one could possibly get. Yet even here, news of the war of course reached us. Ironically, the boat's crew was all Russian, and it was interesting discussing with them how much our perspectives have changed since the Cold War, none of us wanting war of any kind in the world now.
Argentina is a bargain now, and no one knows how to do it better than Analie Tours, the Argentine experts who arranged my long trip throughout Argentina. They can book anything in Buenos Aires, Argentina, South America, or Antarctica, with smooth transfers throughout. Maite Granda, who runs the company, is also a chatterbox who loves to give advice on great places to go while in Argentina (1-800-811-6027).
An amusing photo of Argentina's World Cup Team
A few Buenos Aires-based companies have been breaking into the gay market recently. Among them is Adia Tours (011-54-11-4393-0531; firstname.lastname@example.org). Run by Betty Freilich, the company is a member of IGLTA.
On a recent trip, I took TAM, the Brazilian airline, to Buenos Aires, using both Miami and Sao Paulo as stopovers from my New York home. Even in coach, the seats were very roomy (1-888-2-FLYTAM). Other airlines include Aerolineas Argentina (1-800-333-0276), American Airlines (1-800-433-7300), and LanChile, which connects through Santiago, Chile (1-800-735-5526).