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Jewish Tours Argentina


Buenos Aires: Like Paris, but cheaper

It's a stylish city with the feel of Europe, but with bargain-basement prices

BUENOS AIRES -- There's a high beauty quotient among the people of Argentina, and they dress with flair. Even women in jeans have that ability to throw on an ordinary scarf or shawl in such a way that they end up looking elegant.

My friend Pam and I look at each other immediately after arriving on the streets of Buenos Aires. We've been friends since college days -- so long we can sometimes read each other's minds. She says it first: "Haircuts."

We stop in the first salon we pass. A wash, cut, highlights and blow-dry costs 37 pesos each -- about $13.

Try doing that in Paris, which I've come to think of as the Buenos Aires of Europe.

I came to Argentina last summer, hoping to find an alternative to Europe, where the almighty euro was still giving the U.S. dollar a firm beating. I happily anticipated that I would find things cheaper here -- after all, the Argentine peso went into free fall back in 2002. But how exceptional would the bargains be, and would it really be a true substitute -- close enough to the original to satisfy the traveler yearning for a European-style experience?

Matter of fact, during my days and nights in Buenos Aires, I had to keep reminding myself that I was in South America. Walking wide boulevards lined with fine, European-style architecture, past chic restaurants and bistros where people linger over meals, you sometimes feel as if you are in Paris. Late at night, though, the bright lights and indefinable sense of energy in the streets reminded me more of New York -- although New York is much more ethnically diverse. Portenos, as residents of Buenos Aires are called, are predominantly of European extraction.

Basically, visiting Buenos Aires is like going to Europe and finding that everything is half-off American prices.

Granted, you still have to get there. But our package price of $900 each -- about the cost of airfare to Europe, or to Argentina, for that matter -- included airfare direct from Washington Dulles International airport, six nights in a very nice, centrally located hotel with breakfasts, airport transfers in a private car with a tour guide to greet us, and a half-day bus tour of the city.

If we'd been extremely frugal -- eating in the cheapest restaurants and taking public buses for 30 cents -- we could have gotten by on less than $200 for all other expenses that week. We chose instead to enjoy a few affordable luxuries. This included taking cabs (after all, the meters start at 55 cents), great meals in beautiful settings, a day trip out of the city and an overnight trip to an estancia, one of the many former estates where the wealthiest aristocrats of Argentine society once lived and trained their polo ponies during the months they were not vacationing in Europe.

Unfortunately, we couldn't ignore the bargains in shop windows. After all, our salon "savings" alone could buy us three or four pairs of fashionable leather shoes, or four or five stylish woolen sweaters, or maybe a pair of those boots of buttery soft pigskin, with a purse to match.

Of course, this tourist windfall comes at the expense of the Argentine people who, despite a stable government at the moment, still struggle with the fallout of many years of inept and corrupt leadership. Just a few years ago, the Argentine peso was pegged to the American dollar, one for one. During our trip, banks were giving about 2.8 pesos for one dollar. Even that apparently did not reflect the true state of the peso: Most shops and restaurants were happy to take American dollars and give a flat three-to-one exchange.

Yet the city -- or at least the central areas that tourists frequent -- shows few, if any, signs of the financial collapse that the country endured. Restaurants, bars and tango venues are filled with locals. Parks and buildings both public and private seem well-kept. You see fewer obviously destitute people than you would in similar neighborhoods in cities in the United States. Although the U.S. State Department warned of petty crime, I felt safe walking in busy downtown neighborhoods day and night.

I repeatedly wonder aloud how the city and so many of its inhabitants can continue to look so good. The answer that keeps coming back boils down to this: Looking good is a central tenet of the culture in this country that was once one of the richest on Earth. When Argentine actor Fernando Lamas would repeat his familiar phrase, "You look mahvelous, darling" -- a phrase famously vamped by comedian Billy Crystal -- he was summing up the ethos of his country.

European touches

The Spanish were the first European settlers to arrive and conquer here, and some of the churches built by Jesuit missionaries remain in Buenos Aires. But subsequent waves of European immigrants have left their marks. There are about as many Italian restaurants in the city as there are steakhouses, and you can raise a glass in an Irish tavern with a Spanish-speaking O'Donnell or Flaherty, or have a German strudel in a cafe in an old French mansion.

About 9 million of Argentina's 37 million people live in and near the port city, which boasts 47 separate and distinct neighborhoods.

When I learn that our hotel is in the central business district, I assume it will be a long walk from anything other than canyons of office buildings. But it turns out Buenos Aires doesn't have soulless high-rise neighborhoods. The ground floors of office buildings are used for retail, so our hotel on Reconquista is surrounded with chic stores and restaurants, the streets lively with pedestrians from early morning until late at night.

As long as we stash our cameras and keep our mouths shut, Pam and I are mistaken for locals. When it becomes clear we're from the United States, we get an enthusiastic greeting. Argentines, we're told, still remember with gratitude Jimmy Carter's call for human rights at a time they were under the thumbs of a right-wing military dictatorship. They still fondly recall that then-first lady Hillary Clinton met with the mothers and grandmothers of "the disappeared."

(Amnesty International has documented the disappearance of 9,000 people at the hands of the military dictatorship that ruled from 1976 to 1983. Estimates of disappearances range up to 40,000. Each Thursday, mothers of the disappeared were still rallying at the Plaza de Maya, reminding the current government that they still seek answers to the fate of family members who vanished.)

Although we've taken an 11-hour, overnight flight, the one-hour time difference means no jet lag, and we hit the streets immediately upon arrival.

We quickly realize we don't have to plan our days. Like a handful of great cities around the world, Buenos Aires is a place where you can walk aimlessly and be assured of finding numerous things of interest. It's got that palpable sense of energy: Street performers pop up all over the city, and dozens of museums and other attractions are concentrated in several downtown neighborhoods.

Our meandering path on our first day through the Centro and Retiro neighborhoods leads past museums dedicated to art, crime and forensics, photography, city history, currency, ethnography. Given that entrance fees range from 30 cents to a couple of dollars, you can pop in and out without feeling obligated to absorb every detail of every exhibit.

We've planned our trip so that we'll be free on a Sunday, to take in the San Telmo market. The neighborhood is considered slightly dicey at night, but on Sundays, it feels as if all of Buenos Aires has gathered for a massive street fair.

Dancing in the streets

A brochure we've picked up at a downtown information kiosk lists the addresses of 92 clubs for dancing tango, the most internationally recognized symbol of Buenos Aires. But if your interest in tango is casual and you just want to see a few couples perform, you'll find them here on the streets, dancing for tips.

Classical guitarists are also playing for tips. Miming is a popular art form here, and costumes are elaborate. I didn't know there were so many mimes in the entire world. It's as if they had an international convention here, and everyone stayed.

And of course the main attraction: stuff. The market offers new, used and antique goods of every conceivable variety. I settle on some easily packed handmade jewelry, and vow to return some day for the huge copper pots and pans.

For four days and four nights, we walk. Most of the time we have no specific destination in mind but simply explore neighborhoods. The most elegant and most unabashedly European: the adjoining neighborhoods of Recoleta and Palermo.

The French-style mansions in Recoleta date from the early 19th century, testimony to the vast wealth that once poured into Buenos Aires from the nearby pampas, or fertile grasslands. The neighborhood is perhaps most famous abroad for being home to the historic Recoleta Cemetery. With the help of a cemetery groundskeeper, we find the gravesite of Eva Peron. Fifty years after her death, she remains a controversial national figure, but she clearly has her long-enduring fans, judging from the flowers they place in the iron filigree of the mausoleum doors.

Famed opera house

Perhaps the greatest testament to the fabled wealth and cultural stature of Buenos Aires: Teatro Colon, the world-renowned, 2,500-seat opera house opened in 1908. Its auditorium, in French baroque style, is lauded by opera and symphony buffs for superb acoustics. The walls of the foyer are made with three kinds of European marble; the floors are mosaics of Venetian tiles; overhead is a Parisian-style stained-glass dome.

The great stars of the opera have all sung here: Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti. Mikhail Baryshnikov called it "the most beautiful of the theaters I know," and Baryshnikov knows some theaters.

Open for guided tours, the opera house is also home to the city's ballet and opera companies and three orchestras. A good seat for the opera costs about $35, or you can buy a cheap seat for little more than a dollar.

My favorite spot in the city: the riverside promenade in Puerto Madero, an old warehouse district turned into a modern, hip neighborhood. Hovering over the neighborhood like a giant bird about to take flight is a gleaming white footbridge designed by Santiago Calatrava, the highly lauded Spanish architect whose awards include the 2005 Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.

Handmade jacket

On our last day in the city, before an evening flight, I return to a shop near my hotel to try on a leather jacket I've been admiring all week. Turns out it doesn't fit. No problem, says the saleswoman. A seamstress appears, takes my measurements, offers me a selection of leather to choose from and heads to the factory. She promises me a tailored, handmade jacket, for $140, by 4 p.m.

While Pam goes off for a manicure, I settle in for a proper English tea in an elegant tearoom in the Carlton Hotel. The world passes by the window outside my table in the room with mahogany wainscoting as I eat finger sandwiches, scones with cream, and jam and pastries from a tiered silver platter. It costs me about $7. Those on less forgiving budgets are welcome to linger at the table and share the food; the second person simply orders tea. That way, it's tea for two for about $8.50 -- an economy measure that Argentines are enjoying at tables all around me.

Normal life will soon overtake me when I head back home. But at the moment, I am feeling, and perhaps even looking, mahvelous.

If you go

GETTING AROUND: An extensive bus and subway network offers cheap transport, with tickets starting at about 25 cents. Taxis are also a relative bargain: the meter starts at just over 50 cents. But because of safety concerns, don't flag down street taxis; call or hail radio cabs from reputable companies

WHEN TO GO: Buenos Aires has a mild climate. Average temperatures in January, the hottest month: about 74 degrees. June, July and August are the coldest; average temperatures all three months are about 50 degrees. The shoulder seasons -- spring and fall -- are perhaps the best time to visit the city. Of course, if you plan to use the city as a springboard for visiting other parts of the country, plan for temperature variations as drastic as those in the United States.

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