Buenos Aires heaves with history, architecture, a thumping nightlife — and crazy passionate football fans, as Emma Land discovers.
Argentinians have a saying about their country - "God is everywhere - but his office is in Buenos Aires". Spend a few days there and you'll begin to understand why.
Buenos Aires is Argentina's hub. Almost a third of the country's population live in the greater metropolitan area. It is the capital city, the birthplace of tango. It was the scene of some of Argentina's greatest triumphs - and darkest moments. Put simply, Buenos Aires leads and the rest of the country follows.
Heading to a city whose own tourism agency claims to have more theatres, football stadiums and psychiatrists per capita than any other city in the world was always going to be an interesting experience. Buenos Aires has been described as the Paris of South America and the comparison doesn't disappoint.
It is filled with stunning architecture everywhere you turn - from the grandiose and meticulously maintained public buildings like the National Congress and the Presidential Palace (Casa Rosada) to the fading 19th-century facades that line the cobblestone streets of the bohemian San Telmo, the city's oldest neighbourhood. There are two distinct sides to Buenos Aires - the scale and grandeur of the central city contrast with grittier neighbourhoods like La Boca. Both are equally as charming and are what make Buenos Aires unique. It boasts the best of two continents - European elegance with South American flair.
Part of what makes Buenos Aires such a fascinating city is its history. It is well worth getting a guide, at least for half a day, because once you understand the political history you can begin to understand the people and their culture. It's complicated and bloody and uplifting all at the same time. As a country they are still finding their feet.
The last brutal dictatorship ended in 1983 and there are reminders of it around the city - from street murals to the silent marches that happen every Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo by the "Mothers of the Disappeared" who are searching for justice for the estimated 30,000 people who vanished (presumed killed) during the military regime.
More recently, the 2001 economic crisis shaped the nation, when nearly 60 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line. There is no room for apathy here and it's refreshing to see people with such strength of their convictions.
Our guide tells us Argentinians are passionate about two things - politics and football. There is no middle ground - you are either on one side or the other - and they're not afraid to tell you which side is the right side. Wear the wrong football team's merchandise to a cafe and you'll be good-naturedly advised to take it off, as we witnessed one lunch time.
There is no denying that there is poverty in the city - an estimated 10 per cent of its residents live in slums. But for those with the means, the lifestyle is enviable.
The upmarket suburbs of Recoleta and Palermo offer a glimpse into how the other half lives. Full of boutiques, cafes, parks and upmarket apartment blocks, Palermo is also home to the Campo Argentino de Polo grounds, which hosts the Argentine Polo Open Championship. The epitome of wealth and privilege, this tournament, held annually in November and December, is considered to be the most-prestigious polo event in the world and if you're in the city over that time you shouldn't pass up the chance to attend.
I was surprised to learn that polo is such a popular sport in Argentina. And it's one they excel in - of the top-10 world ranked players, nine are Argentinian.
Recoleta is where you'll find arguably the top tourist attraction in the city - Recoleta cemetery. Spanning four city blocks in some of the most-expensive real estate in the city, the Buenos Aires elite have been buried here since 1822. Not the morbid experience I was expecting, this so-called "city of the dead" is a surprisingly beautiful and peaceful place and one you can easily spend hours exploring.
The most-visited tomb belongs to Eva Peron - Argentina's beloved Evita - but there are far more ostentatious tombs to be seen, some of which have been declared national historic monuments.
To experience the grittier side of Buenos Aires you need to head to La Boca. Though the suburb itself is famous in its own right for the brightly painted buildings in the tourist magnet of El Caminito, La Boca is really known for its football team, the Boca Juniors. Boca is the former club of Diego Maradona, who, despite his past indiscretions, is still considered a God by Argentinians. A game at La Bombonera, the team's home ground, has been described as one of the top-10 sporting events you should see before you die.
Because of violence in the past, the club no longer lets rival fans into the ground and has stopped selling tickets to the general public. Your best bet is to go to an agency that handles ticket sales for tourists by, essentially, paying members to use their season passes - a practice not entirely lawful, judging by the secretive nature of our chaperones.
Services like this will pick you up from your hotel and accompany you to the game, a good option considering La Boca isn't the safest part of town. I felt a little nervous heading into the stadium. We'd been given a long list of things not to do: don't wear red or white (the colours of arch rivals River Plate), remove your jewellery, don't bring in anything you didn't want to risk being confiscated (this included pens, which could be used as weapons), walk quickly, don't speak English loudly, don't show your entry ticket until needed, act like you're supposed to be there.
In the end, it all just added to the experience and nothing can prepare you for the sight that greets you when you finally reach the top of the seemingly never-ending flights of stairs and enter the stadium for the first time. A slight sense of vertigo soon passed and it was impossible to not immediately be swept up in the atmosphere. I must admit I spent most of the game watching the crowd and soaking up the surroundings rather than following the action on the pitch.
It was true South American passion all contained within a stadium of 49,000 people. The section of "hooligan" fans in the bleachers didn't stop chanting and singing the entire match, shirts off, standing on the railings, rallying the crowd and banging their drums.
When Boca scored, the entire stadium erupted and the 1940s concrete structure shuddered under the strain. If you didn't know the songs before you went to the game you'd definitely know them by the end - the crowd continued singing them even as we spilled out into the street. I walked away from that game a bona-fide Boca Juniors fan - but I made sure I took off my official team cap before I ventured too far from the stadium.
A trip to Buenos Aires is all about the experience rather than sightseeing. Much has been said about the crime there. I was urged to be careful, but it's no different from any big city - keep your wits about you, don't leave your bags unattended, don't go to areas you shouldn't and let common sense be your guide.
If there's one thing you need when heading to this city its stamina. Portenos (Buenos Aires locals) don't head out to dinner until after 9pm and later on weekends.
Bars and restaurants are busy every night of the week, well into the early hours of the morning. Take the day at a slower pace so you can keep up with the locals at night - you won't be disappointed.
Get familiar with the "blue dollar". Restrictions on currency trading have given rise to a black-market dollar. Listen on the street for people shouting "Cambio" and you could change your US dollars for up to 40 per cent better than the official rate. Though not strictly legal, it is a widely accepted practice and blue-dollar rates are printed alongside official rates in some newspapers.
Rather than fall into the tourist trap of watching a tango show, get a lesson and then try out your new moves at a Melonga (dance hall) along with the locals.
Sample the local delicacies and don't be afraid to try the stranger things on the menu - they're very fond of offal in Argentina and it's a prized part of any mixed grill.
Don't leave the city without having the steak (Argentina is world famous for it and with good reason, its exceptional) empanadas, dulce de leche (a caramel type sauce served as a breakfast spread or better yet, with dessert), and alfajores, the Argentine national biscuit.
Be prepared to temporarily throw your diet out the window and don't pack your skinny jeans - mine were distinctly tighter by the time I left the country.
The writer travelled to Buenos Aires courtesy of Air New Zealand. Direct flights from Auckland will begin in December.