Buenos Aires: The Paris of South America

By Ed Boitano

Three days were not long enough. Nevertheless, when I had an opportunity to visit Buenos Aires, Argentina, I jumped at the chance. As soon as I climbed into a cab, I was immediately awestruck by the city’s wide boulevards, grandiose monuments, rolling parks and distinctive neighborhoods of somewhat faded glory.

As my taxi cruised down 9 de Julio Boulevard, the driver informed me that it was the widest boulevard in the world, named in honor of Argentina’s Independence Day. He added that due to Argentina’s fluctuating economy “BA” had been really dirt cheap 10 years ago. Do not be concerned for today, though. It is dirt cheap, and your Yankee dollar will go far, he said with a laugh.

It’s always seemed to me that the best information comes from a taxi driver who has seen it all and gives it to you straight unlike PR firms who have a tendency to sugarcoat certain attractions. But sugarcoating was not required for I was already dazzled by this city proper of approximately 2.9 million people, with a lifestyle and architecture that is more European than any other city in South America.

The cafes were filled by stylish-looking people speaking a unique dialect of Spanish with an Italian accent, with many words and phrases in Italian. Over 62.5% of the populace is of Italian heritage, and I could not help but notice porteños (locals, people of the port) gesticulating with their hands like Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” Mate (pronounced “mah-tay”)—the national beverage of Argentina—is a tea made from yerba mate, courtesy of the Tupi People. They introduced it to the gauchos (skilled horsemen) of the pampas, the vast plains extending westward across central Argentina from the Atlantic coast to the Andean foothills.

Served communally in a gourd (squash rind) and sucked through a bombilla (metal straw), which acts as a filter, the bitter, flavored tea seemed to be consumed everywhere I looked: shops, offices, saloons, picnics, even a bus driver on his route. Sampling this local tradition is an easy way to get a literal taste of Argentinean culture.

Beef from the pampas is also a defining cultural tradition. You’ll find the delicious steaks served at countless restaurants, but vegetarian empanadas are also widely available for those who shy away from meat.

My first lunch was at a simple restaurant in San Telmo where I consumed a steak with fries, an empanada and local beer. The cost was a staggering $5. Didn’t my cab driver say something about my Yankee dollar going far? Not to be missed is a tango show, a scandalous dance born in the brothels of Buenos Aires’ immigrant quarters. It gained respectability and popularity when Argentine students traveled to Paris and introduced it to the French, who proclaimed it a dance of great artistic value.

A walking tour of the vibrant La Boca (Italian for “the mouth”) barrio was on my list. Established by Italian immigrants from Genoa in the late 17th century, it’s a bit of a helter-skelter barrio, complete with colorful houses and a pedestrian street where tango artists perform and tango-related memorabilia is sold. It is also an unofficial national shrine dedicated to internationally famed football player Diego Maradona. His football career kicked off there, as he played for the Boca Juniors football club. It’s still a fairly poor neighborhood so keep your eye on your valuables.

My brief trip ended with a stop at La Recoleta Cemetery to pay homage to María Eva Duarte de Perón, “Evita,” at her simple black tomb. Born into a poor rural family, Evita moved to Buenos Aires and secured a living as a B-movie actress. Her fate dramatically changed when she married Col. Juan Perón, later president of Argentina. Despite his dictatorial and fascist leanings, Evita dedicated her life to helping the poor, caring for orphans and the homeless women. She was also a strong proponent for women’s rights. Even today, I noticed her passionate admirers placing flowers and notes at her tomb. Apparently on the anniversary of her death crowds grow to the thousands.

Well, my time was over. I did my best to explore Buenos Aires from a tourist’s perspective: wide boulevards, Italian heritage, mate, beef from the pampas, the gauchos, the tango, Evita; but I know I barely scratched the surface.