Buenos Aires is often referred to as "the Paris of South America," but it's so much more than that. It's like Paris and Vienna, Rome and Barcelona, Havana and San Juan, Miami and Los Angeles, Rio and London ... and yet unlike any of them or any other city in the world. Buenos Aires stands alone, a sprawling metropolis of more than 12 million, located well below the Equator (closer to Antarctica, in fact) at the upper-east quadrant of Argentina.
Anyone who has seen the stage or movie version of "Evita" has some small idea of the recent colorful history of the city. Buenos Aires (which, roughly translated, means "fresh air") was founded originally in 1536, but the Spaniards sent to colonize the mouth of the Rio de la Plata were forced away by the indigenous population. A second, more successful attempt was made in 1580, and it wasn't until the early 1800s that the city and then the country emancipated themselves from the Spanish crown.
One might think that planning by the French, buildings by the Spanish and statuary by the Italians would lend a schizophrenic air to this sprawling capital, but it doesn't. The populace is an open, cosmopolitan melting pot of European and South American cultures (about half of Buenos Aires' citizenry are of Italian descent).
"Portenos" -- as Buenos Aires residents are called, in honor of the port city they call home -- are a proud lot, as well they should be. More than anywhere else in this large country, Buenos Aires felt the effects of years of 2,000-plus percent inflation, and when the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, the portenos took the opportunity to make lemonade out of the lemons they were dealt. In the tourism sector alone, the plucky folk single-handedly rose above; displaced hotel and restaurant workers, facing unemployment, formed collectives to purchase and run their places of business. The devaluation of the Argentine peso made a visit to the city appealing, and tourism thrived.
Oddly enough, this very resourcefulness created a sort of double-edged sword. While most of the city's goods and services remain a tremendous bargain for visitors from Europe or North America, the prices of hotel rooms and tourist-oriented restaurants have soared as visitors flock to the now very affordable city. Still, compared to other world-class cities -- New York, Rome, London, Paris -- a stay in Buenos Aires is a deal. The only problem is that once you visit, you'll want to return ... again and again.
Ultimately, it isn't the architecture you'll be drawn back to, the acres and acres of the city set aside for woods and parks, the fabulous meals of traditional grilled meats, or the hearty Argentine wine. What will entice you is the Latin sizzle, the soul of the portenos, and the genuine warmth and humor of the people you'll meet. It will be the automatic camaraderie you feel at a sidewalk cafe (even if you don't speak Spanish), the thrill you get from watching a couple performing a tango on a San Telmo street corner, the smile of a child wearing a Boca Juniors T-shirt. Maybe you'll be privileged to be offered a sip of yerba tea from a stranger's mate (pronounced "mah-tay") cup, a social tradition in Argentina. Maybe a shopkeeper will point you in the direction of a fabulous tavern. And maybe you'll be taught the tango in an after-hours social club.
Whatever it is, we promise: You'll be hooked.
--written by Jana Jones