Saturday, January 30, 2010

24 Enchanted Hours in Buenos Aires

Travel writers love to tout Buenos Aires as a tourist destination for North Americans, especially in the throes of winter. In fact at the top of this weekend's New York Times "most e-mailed" list this is none other than "Thirty-Six Hours in Buenos Aires."

Sure, read that if you want to overspend and go home with a skewed idea of Buenos Aires as funky, modern, and costly. . . and miss most of what I adore about "the Paris of South America" and will cost you less than a night in the Benjamin Hotel in mid-town Manhattan if you can survive without Frette linens and a pillow menu.

As their readers may expect, the New York Times guide leads readers to the hippest new artists, the oddly futuristic hotels, and the snobbiest restaurants, mirroring experiences you could have in Paris or Milan or even San Francisco and New York, albeit with cheaper steaks and cabernet here.

Now on the other hand, if you are not Big Apple elitist, or if you prize more representative experiences, or if you simply want to enjoy Argentina's capital city for less, consider my enjoyable and less costly itinerary suggestions.

So if you want a fabulous stay in this world-class city with more bang for your buck--and bump into fewer tourists!--read on about our 24 enchanted hours in Buenos Aires with ideas for doing it your own way.

Last September, my husband (and native Argentinian) Roberto and I chose to celebrate our civil wedding anniversary with a short trip to the big city. We spent exactly 24 hours there, arriving on a Saturday early afternoon and leaving the next day after a fabulous time that I cannot imagine having anywhere else. And isn't that the whole idea of travel?


1 PM. INSIST ON A FRIENDLY, WELL-PLACED HOTEL. After a comfortable three-hour bus ride from our home city on the northern fringes of the province of Buenos Aires, we landed at the busy Terminal de Omnibuses in the bustling barrio of Retiro. A short taxi ride later, we experienced a check in that was
smoother than butter at the Wilton Palace Hotel on Callao, our favorite in Recoleta/Barrio Norte, since I reserved ahead via on-line.

As a four-star hotel, the Wilton Palace lacks the luxurious appointments that I don't need and features the comfortable beds and impeccable bathrooms that I do. Moreover, it boasts a truly privileged location! Just step outside to access the famed Avenida Santa Fe shopping district. I consider the Wilton the best bargain in the area at about US$70 per night. You can rely on a knowledgeable, accommodating staff (who will remember you!) and eat hearty at the cold buffet breakfast, which is the one thing I'd really like to upgrade.

Note: Less than four stars in Argentina and you won't get a bath tub, or if you do, it will lack a stopper! (I travel with an extra one.) Here's a photo of a great designer bathroom from a shop in Buenos Aires design, and you may encounter some top-notch designs in newer five-star hotels, and the ladies' room at Aires of Patagonia restaurant is one of my Puerto Madero favorites. Given the sorry state of the typical Argentine public restroom, it delights me to stumble across some that are real works of art! (I may do a blog just on bathrooms soon!)

1:30 PM. ENJOY WINDOW SHOPPING IN BARRIO NORTE. [Uppermost photo.] Fantasize all the parties you could go to in the colorful array of party dresses! Find designer clothes (for kids too!) and gorgeous distinctive handcrafted handbags and shoes in enough colors and designs to stir your inner Imelda Marcos! I was intrigued to note a much bigger selection of comfortable shoes in the zillions of zapaterias that used to showcase only spiky high heels and fragile lacy sandals. I snatched up a perfect pair for travel--comfy and but not clunky! Not a bargain at US$70, but they were put to immediate use and I danced out the store!

1:40 PM. STOP AND SMELL THE FLOWERS. From one of the kiosks dotting the sidewalk, Roberto bought me a lovely bouquet of freesias (US$2) to perk up our otherwise ho-hum room. Street vendors also offered fragrant jasmine posies for a few pesos each.

For more flowers, check out the grand boulevard 9 de Julio or the parks in Palermo with breathtaking jacarandas in November. Be sure to look UP because the most glorious of all is the palo borracho, a thorn studded tree with a canopy of blooms as big and beautiful as stargazer lilies!

2 PM. ENJOY SLOW FOOD. We decided on a quiet Chinese lunch in an unexpectedly nice place for about (US$20) off the main shopping avenue, Santa Fe, as we can't get Chinese food where we live. For visitors who can, I'd recommend you go for traditional instead of trendy. Try some parrilla (grilled beef & innards), pasta (e.g., handmade squash-filled calamari-tinted raviolis), or pizza (my fave has hearts of palm, pineapple and ham and zero tomato). (If you are a vegetarian, you can still enjoy regional specialties at the Restaurante Bio in Palermo for Andean grains and Indian teas.) Then walk around enjoying the architecture. Isn't the Ministry of Education gorgeous?

Tip: Forget fast food if you want to experience Argentine cuisine (not counting empanadas). As the saying goes, "He who knows how to eat knows how to wait."

3:30 PM. FIND SPECIAL EXHIBITS AND ACTIVITIES. We took a taxi to the Tribunales, the city's historic, elegant racetrack and doubled our fun. Our first stop was the renowned annual spring exhibit known as "Casa FOA"---a huge expo of architecture and design at the racetrack! For about US$15 total, we got to stroll for a couple of hours, totally ga-ga, through full sized designs for bedrooms, living rooms, offices…with touches that remind me why I love being so close to the design capital of Latin America…from the sleek to the vanguard to the rustic…it was all there…and so many pretty young architects! Where are the guys? Here's a photo of the hall of individual bathrooms [between each light frame], each with a distinctive design, enough to bewilder and delight all those who felt nature's call.

Twice I was fortunate to make it to the fantastic South American design fair, the Ferio Puro Diseño, this year May 20 - 25 at the La Rural grounds. I think it is well worth a special trip, as is Casa FOA. These deserve mention in the NY Times for their size and quality. The University of BA is the top design school in Latin America--and these shows are proof! Maybe we should call this place the Milan of South America! Of course if you are not into design, you'll find plenty of other fairs and events--just type in your favorite kind of envent and "Buenos Aires". . . then plan your visit around your pasttimes or conferences or whatever. It's all here, from polo games and gourmet food fairs to tango competitions and film festivals.

After a scrumptious gelato at Volta's (remember that Argentina is nearly half Italian!) in a fabricated garden patio setting set up just for the duration of Casa FOA, we scampered next door and for free watched two races from a great perch in the bar. Who cared if the service was slow and the cheap food mediocre after so many memorable moments? Total cost: about US$10 (If you are a polo fan, come between August and December and goes to the Palermo Hippodrome!)

6 PM. HOTEL: REST & GET READY. The really great thing is that the distances in this whole venture were short enough that we could walk--and enjoy block after block of shops and historic buildings--or take a very quick taxi ride. No time was lost just getting somewhere. That is part of the wonder of Buenos Aires, unlike some place like Los Angeles, where as one of my favorite Occidental College (yes, Obama's alma mater) professors, Dr. Winters, noted, anything interesting always seems to be 17 miles away from anything else of interest. (I love LA--for other reasons!)

If your hotel is convenient, you can take a siesta like the natives do so that you will be all set for a night on the town as restaurants open at 9 pm. We had time for a 20-minute rest before getting dolled up to go out.

7 PM. JIVE WITH BUENOS AIRES LIVE. By reserving ahead just one day ahead, I managed to snag center front-row seats for the most acclaimed show in town, El Regreso del Tigre, which featured great actors in a family drama with an upbeat ending. Total for two tickets ran about $60. (What would that get you on Broadway?)

By the way, that was the early show; there were more folks for the 9 PM show--the ones who like to dine at 11 or midnight! Find dozens of theater and hundreds of live music show listings on line in La Nation, Clarín, the Buenos Aires Herald, and other sites. Prices are variable, but cheapter than you might expect. For tango shows, consult the hotel concierge or internet booking agents; do this in advance if you want the most popular ones on a weekend night.)

10 PM ROMANTIC DINNER. The Peruvian chefs on Canal Gourmet fascinate me and yet we just never seem to make it up to Peru. Next best thing we figured was dinner at the new Pozo Santo in Palermo, which is gaining a reputation for its Peruvian-Mediterranean dishes. We were inspired by the magical lighting and ambience, the peppery pisco sours, the freshest seafood. . . and too much chocolate! Bill was about US$70. And folks kept arriving after us! I wanted to check out the impressive patio but I didn't want to interrupt two lovebirds (and the guy very well might have been proposing--it looked good!). Here's a photo of a detail from the door to one of the restrooms--can you guess if it was the "little boy's" or "little girl's" room?

MIDNIGHT. Back to the Wilton to enjoy that verrry comfortable beds with lots of pillows. A party was just revving up, as midnight on Saturday is early in Argentina, but we fell asleep any way after a day of shopping, fairs, theater, and dining!


9 AM. BROWSE THE BOOKS. After the standard boring cold breakfast of ham, bland cheese, boring pastries, fruit, and yogurt (that always makes me long for a good old American breakfast of scrambled eggs, blueberry muffins, and crispy bacon), we checked out and left our bags at the hotel desk. We also asked them to reserve a car and driver for us for 1 p.m., our departure time. Then we sauntered half a block to the world's most beautiful bookstore, The Ateneo (photo, right).

A restored theater, The Ateneo's gilded balconies beckon you to sink into a club chair and peruse at leisure. If you prefer to linger with coffee, head for the cafe located where the stage was--its entrance still bracketed by heavy velvet stage curtains. We dithered around for a while and somehow escaped with just one book this time. To save time for more sightseeing, we hailed one of those ubiquitous yellow and black radio taxis instead of walking to the Plaza Francia.

NOTE: "Books are Us" could be a Buenos Aires motto, because you will find small bookstores tucked all over the city! You may have a hard time choosing which of the many great coffee table books (in English too) to take home with you! If you come in April, don't miss the annual family-friendly book fair, the Feria del Libro, with hundreds of displays and free lectures. . . and a million visitors!

10:30 AM. THE RECOLETA CEMETERY AND CULTURAL CENTER. As we did not have visitors with us, we skipped Evita’s black marble tomb this time and instead of entering the famous cemetery, we slipped inside the Cultural Center Gallery next door to the chapel (photo left). For free we enjoyed a great photo exhibit and some really crazy guy’s paintings & sculptures. (Just like you could find in NY!) I did find one detail that I thought worth sharing with you (see below right).

The Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires, the MALBA, is one of my favorite museums of all time (with a pleasant cafe too). There are others still on my "be sure to visit someday list," from tango to decorative arts that might interest you more if you want to see things you won't find at MOMA or the Met (but maybe at the Smithsonian or British Museum as they seem to have "everything").

11:30. SIGHT-SEEING ON FOOT. We simply meandered the ritzy neighborhood of Recoleta, including both the exclusive shops and a gallery in the underground "Buenos Aires Design" and the park above it, just enjoying views. For budget purposes and for enjoyment of the plaza panorama, we opted for a simple, inexpensive, healthy and tasty lunch at Aroma followed by delicious Freddo ice cream (below). Total: about US$17.

1PM. We picked up our bags at the Wilton and got in the "remis"--the hired car with driver--who drove us to visit friends near San Isidro for the rest of the day. Our 24 hours in Buenos Aires was officially over.

It was the most fun-packed 24 hours I spent in a long, long time! Not including my shoes or taxis (negligible), the total price including four-star hotel, three restaurants (including one gourmet), theater (front row seats), design fair tickets, and flowers for the two of us came to US$260. (What would that get you in San Francisco or Milan?)

To be honest, we don't usually spend that much in BA, but as it was our anniversary, we treated ourselves a bit. When pinching centavos, we head for parks and museums instead of the theater and eat more humbly (which is still good in Argentina!). Instead of a sit-down lunch, we might grab some salami, cheese, and a bottle of water at one of the local delis and find a bench under one of the rubber trees in the Recoleta plaza, watching people gawk at their 100-foot spread. You can nearly always count on pleasant weather! Later we might go to the cinema instead of the theater. We go home happy either way!

One thing is for sure: you can do Buenos Aires your way. . . and be as chic and sleek or laid-back and budget-minded as you like. When you do, I hope you'll have a ton of fun, take lots of photos and great memories of this enchanting city home with you, and send the travel writers at the NY Times your opinion!


Beth said...

You can be my tour guide any time, Gayle! Sounds like a wonderful trip. Hope my budget extends to international travel again soon...thank you for sharing this gorgeous spot with us!

Gayle said...

Hey, gracias, amiga! Just let me know when to expect you--and what museums and events tickle your fancy! Get a cheap RT from Miami, stay in the Wilton, and enjoy a great 4 or 5 days for less than a weekend almost anywhere else. Of course mi casa es tu casa if you want the authentic tour of the "interior." Time for a guide to that? Also, congrats on your beautiful book (love the cover!), "Around the World in 104 Days"!!!

Katie said...

What a great write-up on Buenos Aires, Gayle! I read that article in the NY Times last week. While I thought some of the suggestions sounded interesting, I find that the majority of the articles churned out by the mainstream American media (and the NYT in particular) about BsAs always sound the same and appeal to the same aesthetic. I like your refreshing (and more affordable!) take on the capital.

Pozo Santo sounds incredible. I'll try to pop in there the next time I'm in BsAs. Thanks for the tip!

Deane Castro said...

i loved