Buenos Aires: Let's get ready to tango

By Geoff Cumming

With just 48 hours to spend in Argentina's capital city, Geoff Cumming goes in search of some live Latin beats.

Tango dancers tout for business in Dorrego Square in San Telmo. Photo / Geoff Cumming
Tango dancers tout for business in Dorrego Square in San Telmo. Photo / Geoff Cumming

It takes only two to tango and in Buenos Aires opportunity seems to knock on every corner.

In a city where attractions are shared around the barrios (neighbourhoods the size of an average Auckland suburb), each with its own distinct identity, the tango is a constant. Argentina's best-known export, it is as unavoidable as the city's chargrill parrillas which serve up red meat in quantities that have foreigners groaning but which portenos (Buenos Aires' residents) take in their stride.

With just 48 hours to spend in this metropolis of 14 million, I had limited ambitions: to see the sights and to sample some live Latin beats. Something more tango nuevo than traditional and an intimate venue would be just the ticket.

I communicated my desires to the hotel concierge in my best stilted English: some cutting-edge electronica-jazz-guitar fusion, with accordions, please. He directed me to a bar strip several blocks from my city centre hotel.

I may as well have been in Soho, London - a succession of bars with names like Duck & Trumpet catering for podgy Brits. An R 'n' B covers band thudded out of one; a couple of upmarket nightclubs looked classier but once inside the DJs were playing the same British beats you hear anywhere.

I was ambling back towards my hotel resigned to not finding the next Federico Aubelle or Gotan Project when the sound of accordions seeping from a doorway drew me like a bee to honey. The place seemed no bigger than a cafe and it looked suitably understated. I was nervous about the cover charge but the enthusiastic doormen assured me I could try before I buy.

Just as well. Once inside the dimly-lit venue, it was clear the music was of the recorded variety and behind the small bar was no sign of beverages. In a corner, two young things in black lace skirts and red waistcoats appeared pleased to see me. A woman old enough to be their mother, wearing too much makeup, long, painted fingernails (and was that a wig?) wafted across the room and extended a soft hand. I let mine slip through hers and made my escape. It was clear they intended to do more than tango with me.

At the same time a few blocks away, a colleague of mine was enduring a similar introduction to porteno nightlife, in a brothel masquerading as an Irish bar. He was more polite than me, at least learning the name - Lara - and quaffing a beer before beating a retreat.

Comparing notes, it seemed safer to take in the sights by day, when tango dancers perform in pedestrian malls and public squares, often to lure tourists to legitimate dance venues and restaurants by night.

Buenos Aires is a city where you need a bit of inside knowledge.

I learned later that trendy Palermo is the place for cutting-edge Latin beats and well-worn San Telmo for old-school jazz and traditional tango.

Getting to these places is relatively easy if you are in the know. The subway is clean and efficient and the streets safe to wander.

Buenos Aires is not a sprawling metropolis for its population, but it is big and extremely busy - many locals spending hours a day in their cars negotiating the city's wide boulevards - one of which, Avenue de Julio 9, with its 12 lanes, is touted as the widest street in the world.

A good way to get oriented is to take a half-day bike tour with the likes of Urban Adventures, covering a lot of ground with less stress than walking (despite the gridlock) and with knowledgeable guides thrown in.

While Argentinians drive like Italians, the cars are small, never have time to get up that much speed and generally stop on a sixpence. Happily, the city has nearly 100km of dedicated cycle lanes - on footpaths.

Our group took a northern route through upmarket Recoleta and Palermo though I would have preferred the southern trail, which takes in grungy, bohemian San Telmo with its antique markets and abandoned mansions and La Boca, the working class, original port suburb whose brightly-painted corrugated iron buildings have become a tourist trap.

In such a short time, I could only hope to scratch the surface of this vibrant city, where the fragrance of purple flowering jacarandas mingles with meaty aromas from the parrillas.

It seemed a prosperous place and our guide Rodrigo confirmed that unemployment has recovered from the economic meltdown of early last decade. Even so, there are plenty of signs of under-employment and an excess of street markets offering touristy junk.

There's a variety of impressive architecture, from the striking high-rises around the redeveloped docklands to the classical French and Spanish-influenced buildings along Avenida de Mayo. Many date from Argentina's belle epoque a century ago, when wealthy portenos sent their sons to Europe for education.

A more unlikely architectural highlight awaits at Recoleta, the leafy, upmarket barrio north of Centro, where cultural and educational institutions are concentrated. We biked through vast parks where locals unwind on weekends and past the Acropolis-style law school to the Recoleta cemetery, where Eva Peron is among the illustrious guests.

While some tombs are the worse for wear, most are built for eternity and ornately decorated. No expense has been spared on accommodating the dead. "It's cheaper to live your life lavishly than it is to be buried in this cemetery," says Rodrigo.

With average locals having not a hope of being buried here, most are focused on having fun while they can. Which may explain the popularity of the tango, a dance said to have originated in the brothels of La Boca.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Aerolineas Argentinas has five flights a week direct to Buenos Aires.

Getting around: Intrepid Travel offers packages combining Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro with options such as Iguazu Falls and Uruguayan ranch stays.

Exploring the city: The subway is clean and efficient and bus services frequent and cheap. Segregated bike trails cover nearly 100km of Buenos Aires. Urban Adventures offers half-day guided tours over two routes for US$35 ($45.35).

What to eat: One guidebook describes portenos (Buenos Aires' locals) as Argentinians who think they're Italians, act like Spaniards but want to be British. The impacts of waves of colonisation are reflected in the city's architecture and its food options. There's no shortage of parrillas - food bars offering chargrilled meats of all varieties for less than $10. Take care ordering steaks - they come in slabs of up to 800g. Meat eaters should not miss the chance for an asado, a full Argentinian barbecue with meats ranging from beef, lamb and chicken to black puddings and intestines. Vegetarians can survive on tasty filled tortillas and pastas, while many supermarkets have food halls.

Geoff Cumming visited Buenos Aires courtesy of Intrepid Travel and Aerolineas Argentinas.

- NZ Herald

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