- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2004

BUENOS AIRES — The midmorning sunlight is brilliant along the drive from Buenos Aires’ international airport into the city. The trees near the road stand tall and slim like a row of tango dancers.

Soon we are in the heart of this cosmopolitan capital city on the Avenue Ninth of July, which is named for Argentina’s independence day and is claimed locally to be the widest street in the world. With 16 lanes of traffic, it probably is, including the several parklike islands that serve as safe places for pedestrians who have to make the crossing.

This is B.A., and the Portenos, as its residents are known, are proud of it and themselves.

Near the end of the superboulevard, we exit onto Posadas and to the Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires, where two friends already have arrived from Washington. The driver has called shortly before my arrival, and an attendant opens the door with “Welcome to the Four Seasons, Mr. Slusser.” This welcome by name is repeated each time I return to the hotel on foot or by taxi. Amazing.

My friends show me the upscale neighborhood, then they give me a proper introduction to the city: lunch at Las Cholas in the small Las Canitas neighborhood in the Palermo section.

In three hours, we three enjoy three bottles of malbec, Argentina’s best-known red wine; sauteed mushrooms; empanadas; watercress salad; bottled water; potatoes; desserts (one apple tart, two assorted ice creams); espresso; and the centerpiece of the lunch, an enormous parrillada mixta — a mixed grill of steaks, sausages, chicken, lamb and sweetbreads. The bill is $15 each, including tip.

In Argentine pesos, the tab is 126.65, a considerable sum in the country’s deflated currency. In happier times, this could have been U.S. $125, when Buenos Aires was ranked No. 20 among the most expensive cities in the world and the peso was at par with the U.S. dollar. Argentina’s massive foreign debt helped bring the collapse of the economy and the peso, and in the ensuing depression, Buenos Aires fell 100 places among the most expensive cities. Many, many people have been out of work for two years.

Many Portenos, however, still have maids, and also paseaperros, or professional dog walkers. The paseaperros can be seen on streets in the fashionable and residential-commercial areas, although maybe not with as many as 30 dogs on leashes for one walk as in the prosperous 1990s.

“In this city,” our taxi driver says after lunch, “you don’t have to be wealthy to have someone walk your dogs.

“The paseaperros, though, never get inside the apartments. The maids bring the dogs down on the stairs to the walkers and later pick them up.”

It is still a structured society in life, as well as in death for the well-known and monied at the fashionable Cemetery of La Recoleta.

Several days later, I notice a maid near the French Embassy briskly walking a small white poodle. Her uniform is as pale a blue as the flag of Argentina; her dainty apron is the standard white.

One pregnant young professional woman, the wife of a lawyer, says she does not have a maid and doesn’t need one. “My friends say I am crazy,” she says. “They say that I will change my mind when I have my baby. But I don’t think so.”

Many wealthy Argentines lost their fortunes in the collapse of the economy; those who were lucky withdrew their money from banks in time, and they can live quite well.

Portenos and their countrymen have been criticized in other parts of Latin America for their pride, and they joke about it. One such joke involves a Porteno committing suicide by falling off his ego. If they can laugh at themselves, I can, too. After all, pride — not the seven-deadly-sins excess — is an element of sophistication.

To Portenos, these people of the tango, life is a matter of style, and they keep as much of it as they can. Dressing well may not be as easy now, but style has not gone out of fashion.

Office employees cling to their standards of dress. Many men wear jackets in offices and shops and between home and work, but fewer keep them on in restaurants.

Opening nights and special occasions at the venerable Teatro Colon, the city’s famous venue for opera, ballet and concerts, still see formally dressed patrons for gala events, but on other nights, the attire is more relaxed, as it is in most major cities anywhere. A ticket for an excellent orchestra seat for a performance of the theater’s resident ballet company costs about $16.

Besides beef and ballet, the great bargains for tourists are most obvious in leather goods, from handmade shoes and women’s handbags to jackets and luggage.

Frequently in shops, clerks may explain that they do not speak English well, but I find that their English usually is better than my Spanish and that we can complete a transaction — with a few gestures sometimes thrown in. There is a universal comprehension in shopping.

At the Four Seasons Hotel, the first language is Spanish, but English is spoken in response to a guest’s question in English. The staff’s English is well-spoken and easily understood. The Four Seasons, I learn, offers free English classes for its employees, and they may attend on company time.

I have been in quite a few Four Seasons hotels, but I have never seen service better than it is in Buenos Aires. I give great credit to the friendly doormen who greet guests and take their luggage, give them directions on getting somewhere and call a taxi for them, all before loading their luggage and saying goodbye and please come back.

I leave Buenos Aires for two days to visit the Four Seasons Resort across the Rio de la Plata in Carmelo, Uruguay, and when I return, one of the doormen sees me in the lobby, walks over to me and says, “Mr. Slusser, welcome back to the Four Seasons.” How can he remember? I was here three nights and away two. What memories these young men have.

A number of guests at the hotel are Americans, but only a few of them obviously so; most guests are Spanish-speaking. Whatever their language, they can hear the daily harp performance from a balcony high in the lobby. A big harp goes a long way.

Americans have been returning as tourists and on business after several years of caution following the collapse of the economy and street protests, the ouster of several presidents, and travel concerns following September 11.

One of the great benefits of visiting Buenos Aires, a friend says, is that you don’t really feel pushed to do anything. There are things you should see, such as a tango show; Evita’s tomb; Teatro Colon, Metropolitan Cathedral and the tomb of liberator Jose de San Martin; the La Boca and San Telmo areas and the urbanely renewed Puerto Madero; and the Casa Rosada, where the real Eva Peron and, later, Madonna, waved to the people. There is no Louvre Museum here that demands a visit. A nice hotel with a pool can turn a visit to this city into a real vacation.

Madonna rehearsed her Casa Rosada balcony scene for the film “Evita” on the balcony of the belle-epoque-style Mansion, a former private home and still a grand building that is part of the Four Seasons property. The Mansion can be rented as suites for weddings and other occasions or in entirety, as it was by Madonna while she was on location. A sumptuous Sunday brunch — reservations a must — is served in the Mansion

A friend is very impressed by the hotel’s style when he orders lunch at poolside: His club sandwich is served on a linen-laden silver tray, very fitting for the location in front of the Mansion.

For another delicious lunch but with less pinache, three steak sandwiches in a small restaurant near the soccer stadium in La Boca turn out to be the biggest steaks on sandwiches in the Western Hemisphere. With three Coca-Colas, the total cost is $7 plus change.

On my last night here, I sit near a couple from Michigan who are ending their third two-week vacation in Argentina and plan to come back soon for a fourth visit. They like the country and the city.

Buenos Aires has been called the Paris of South America, but it resembles the French city in architecture more than attitude — Portenos can laugh at themselves, while Parisians can’t do that. This city also looks like Madrid, but the buildings are not so embellished in Buenos Aires. It is unique and does not need comparison.

The city can get very hot and humid by midsummer, and those who can afford it take their dogs and drive south to Mar del Plata for a beach vacation or head west for the mountains. Soon, fall begins, and even winter doesn’t dare let snow fall on Buenos Aires. The Portenos won’t allow it. Not on their paseaperros or parrilladas.

A good season for tourism returns to Argentina

“Tourism in Argentina is going through a very great time,” says Carlos Enrique Meyer, the federal government’s secretary of tourism. “We anticipate a very good summer season. The increasing number of arrivals from other South American countries and Europe is really amazing.”

Mr. Meyer cites a 35 percent increase in visitors between October 2002 and October 2003.

The tourists’ main destination interests, Mr. Meyer says in an interview, are Iguazu Falls on the border with Brazil, Buenos Aires, and the Patagonia region.

He believes tourism in 2003 will be 6 percent above the total for 2000 when the final figures are calculated. Tourism and the economy took a nose dive in 2002.

Argentina expects the final 2003 figures to show a 43 percent increase in visitors from the United States over the low of almost 96,000 in 2002, and just 5.6 percent below the 145,000 Americans who visited in 2000.

Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn and Ushuaia are the major ports for cruise lines calling in Argentina, with about 200 cruises stopping in Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, the port from which most Antarctic cruises depart.

He also says that these ports, along with Mar del Plata, the major beach resort, Camarones and Puerto Deseado, have agreed to fix port rates for cruise lines for four years, a move that may attract more cruise ships because the rates will not fluctuate between ports each year and will aid them in planning itineraries that include Argentina.

International airlines are increasing the number of flights, and some are re-establishing routes to Buenos Aires, Mr. Meyer says. American last year added a nonstop flight from Dallas.

Mr. Meyer says more families from Chile, Uruguay and Peru are visiting Argentina and that the increase in the number of visitors from Chile is remarkable.

“They stay up as late as we do,” he says, “and there is a good relationship between our presidents, and so the people are friendly to each other.”

Skiing attracts many visitors to Argentina from June to August, he says, citing eight charter flights a week from Sao Paolo, Brazil, during those months. Whale watching is a big draw to Puerto Madryn and the Valdez Peninsula from June to November.

Mr. Meyer says the people of Argentina are good hosts.

“The average Argentine,” he says, “is a very educated person [a 97 percent national literacy rate], a friendly person, and all tourists are welcome to Argentina.”

Making the most of Buenos Aires

“I hear you are going to Buenos Aires,” a colleague said. “Is it safe?” “You’re talking to someone who just got back from Israel,” I answered.

There is no terrorism in Buenos Aires. There are many more street crimes and homicides than there were before Argentina’s economy collapsed and brought so much unemployment, so any crime sounds like a big increase. Before I left Washington, I was advised by Portenos here to use the same caution normal for visiting any big city and if I happened to be in a shopping region such as the Avenida Florida pedestrian area to leave when the stores were closing.

The doormen at the Four Seasons Hotel insisted that I let them call taxis for me and advised me that when I was ready to leave a restaurant to ask someone there to call. I had no problem with taxis, and I sometimes hailed them to get back to the hotel when I was elsewhere in the city.

Avenida Florida was the one disappointment, for I had heard how pleasant that street was and that it was the place to buy leather jackets. The quality of the shops has gone down as enclosed shopping malls have become popular, particularly the Patio Bullrich, Alto Palermo and Galerias Pacifico.

In Argentina, the capybara, the world’s largest living rodent, is called carpincho, and its soft, suedelike hide is available in wallets, belts, gloves and jackets. It is an ugly critter to make such beautiful leather. Carpincho products should have labels indicating that they came from wild animals, not ones raised commercially. The tailless carpinchos, which eat grasses and live around streams, can grow to 4 feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds.

Here are some more tips for the visitor to Buenos Aires:

• The telephone country code for Argentina is 54, followed by the Buenos Aires city code, 1. Buenos Aires is two hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

• Leather belts are made to order — with initials in intaglio in a silver buckle and perhaps a pair of matching cuff links — at Arandu, Ayacucho 1924, in La Recoleta; phone 4800-1575. While I was there, a visitor from Houston came in seeking leather covers for his polo mallets. Buenos Aires has a large polo stadium as well as soccer stadiums. The shop carries other Argentine leather and woolen goods and polo shirts.

• Portenos eat late; dance bars usually don’t get rolling until about 2 a.m., but the party lasts into daylight.

• Las Cholas, with tables inside and on the sidewalk, is open from noon until closing — usually very late. Order the parrillada mixta (mixed grill) and enjoy the homemade bread; corner of Arce and Arevalo Las Canitas; 4899-0094.

• Dinner at Cabana Las Lilas in Puerto Madero offers good food and excellent service for a large restaurant, but beware of immense portions of meat here — and everywhere else in Argentina. A pork tenderloin may mean the whole tenderloin; a rib-eye steak is twice as thick as Americans are accustomed to being served; Avenida Davila 516; 4313-1336; [email protected] Despite all the beef, Argentina’s leading export is soybeans.

• “Bife de chorizo” on the menu is not the Spanish sausage but a delicious thick, juicy grilled steak similar to the American New York strip, and it vies with parrillada as the national dish. Beef, however, is not the leading export; Argentina ranks third in the world, behind the United States and Brazil, in shipping soybeans to other countries.

• The tango is the dance, although it began with male immigrants dancing together in loneliness.

Female partners, at first prostitutes, later joined the males, so proper Porteno society regarded it as a base dance until singer Carlos Gardel popularized the sad songs and the dance.

Women listened to him then and do now through his recordings on the radio as if hearing a soap opera; a wide selection of Gardel’s songs are available on compact discs. A woman in New York is said to have committed suicide upon hearing of his death; he is buried in La Chacarita Cemetery.

The tango may be seen in small bars, occasionally on the street and in major productions with or without dinner. Do not expect the music to sound like a satiny Hollywood arrangement with acres of strings and stereophonic sound, for the musicians and instruments are few, but listen for the bandoneon, like a small accordion, and watch the sensual, erotic moves of the dancers.

Or take classes. Recommended are the Esquina Carlos Gardel, Carlos Gardel 3200, 4867-6363, [email protected] or www.esquinacarlosgardel.com.ar, and El Querandi, Peru 302, 5199-1770, [email protected] or www.querandi.com.ar.

Dinners usually start about 8:30, with the show opening about 10:30. The Senor Tango performances also are very popular for many spectators and are not as intimate as Esquina and Querandi.

• United Airlines flies nonstop from Washington Dulles International Airport to Buenos Aires’ Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini (EZE) in the Ezeiza suburb in Buenos Aires province. American Airlines flies from Washington-area airports to connecting flights in Miami or Dallas. Flights generally depart about 9 p.m. and arrive the next morning in each direction. I flew coach, in an aisle seat on American, and felt surprisingly comfortable because of the extra legroom. The airport-departure tax is $18, payable in pesos or, usually, in dollars. Security appeared to be thorough for my American Airlines flight.

• Indulge in the excellent ice cream, with shops such as Freddo, Fridda, Chungo, Bianco, Persicco, Bella Italia, etc., but especially Cadore, Avenida Corrientes 1695 in the Congresso section.

• Argentina is proud of its wines, red and white; wines from the malbec grape, alone and in blends, receive the most attention.

• Look for street art, especially the small paintings, about 8 by 10 inches, in La Boca, and expect to pay about $15. Subjects include bar scenes, port life, tango dancers and that area’s brightly painted buildings and doors. Oil paintings on composition board and covered with bubble wrap travel well if packed sensibly.

• Rooms at the Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires in La Recoleta — Posadas 1086/88, C1011ABB, Buenos Aires; phone 4321-1200; fourseasons.com — start at about $300, which is less than at many Four Season properties. Unlike most Four Seasons properties, this one has a business or club floor. The business center provides free Internet access, also rare in hotels, and the staff can wrap packages to send home or for shipping as excess baggage, which probably is less expensive. The Sunday brunch in the Mansion is a feast and even includes fresh shellfish. The concierges are very helpful, as are the doormen.

• Do not expect many offerings from sea or river on menus in B.A. This is meat country, diet heaven for those on the Atkins regimen. Chefs tend to overcook meats for American tastes, so if you want medium-rare, order it rare. Forget about ordering kidneys, for they are overcooked, but expect other cuts and parts of beef not often found on menus in the United States, including sweetbreads and testicles. Go for it.

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