The everlasting joy of Buenos Aires

Some cities stun, others charm, a few overwhelm and all too many bore. Sometimes after you visit you realize once is enough, many times it takes a good three or four visits to see what makes a place special. A select few places, including the one at hand, make clear that a lifetime is never enough to explore all it has on offer.

There’s really nothing more to say about Buenos Aires other than it’s breathtaking, and, like many Argentines, only gets better the longer you know it.

I still stand by my long-held belief that, despite all the terrible things you could say about Argentina, Buenos Aires is one of the world’s greatest cities. Clinging to the past, yet in the vanguard of social and cultural movements, dripping in Southern European tradition while easily keeping up with New York’s 24-hour pace, Buenos Aires surprises nearly everyone who visits, and keeps them coming back.

I wrote in the Columbia Spectator almost ten years ago that Argentina, and by extension Buenos Aires, is:

“that crazy uncle who dropped out of college, lives with his doting mother sporadically, and invents schemes to make ends meet. This same relative, however, is the life of wedding receptions, has a really showy car, and is always good for buying a round of drinks”.

I have made the 5,000+ mile trip back a total of nine times, visiting in 2003, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, and twice in 2013 and living there for several months in 2004 and 2006. This year I got the privilege to return twice, once in the chilly fall months and the other time at the beginning of the sweltering summer. 

Following a work trip to Brazil and an unexpected schedule change, I flew back to the US via Buenos Aires and made a quick stopover out of it. After ascending through the urban-planning nightmare of São Paulo and traversing hundreds of miles of empty land, rivers and lakes, a behemoth appears just at the edge of the River Plate. Miles upon miles of orderly gridded-streets blazing against the sunset foretells your arrival in the Paris of South America (a misnomer, Paris it isn’t).

Buenos Aires is glamorous, dripping with money and class. It is festooned with some of the most marvelous Belle Epoque architecture you could possibly want to see, in alternating states of glory or disrepair. Porteños (as Buenos Aires residents are lovingly or derisively called) are also sights to behold, with their various intensities of style and attitude.

At the same time the metropolitan area is also a locus of immigrant and domestic poverty. On my visits this year, I got to see two corners of the city few tourists get to encounter, two villas miserias that hold some of the country’s most visible poverty and communities from Paraguay, Bolivia and other parts of Argentina that came to the city and have yet to encounter the dream they were seeking. One sits right behind the city’s decadent train station, Retiro, wedged on federal land between the port and the tracks. The other is a massive expanse on the road to La Plata, bordering traditional working-class communities and a filthy stream.

But despite the waves of Argentines that left the country after the 2001 crisis and the immigrants that could head back home rather than stay in the shanties of the city, many couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. And when you talk to Argentines rich and poor many say they are still in love with Buenos Aires despite all its faults and flaws, and stay with it through thick and thin.

Every city has interesting things going on, and creative people doing wonderful things. But nowhere does it thrive and flourish against all odds than in Buenos Aires.

That’s because, particularly if you’re familiar with life elsewhere as many Argentines are, it’s really hell to live there. Unlike in the U.S. or Northern Europe where you can expect efficiency and economic pragmatism, or in the rest of Latin America where money can buy almost anything, life in Buenos Aires presents the worst of both worlds. Public officials can’t be bought and sold for routine public services, but they also don’t always do their jobs. Unlike in the U.S. and most of Latin America, money can’t buy convenience either – anyone who has spent time in Spain or Italy knows exactly how it feels to want something outside of business hours or ask someone to do something that isn’t explicitly their job. And let’s not even talk about Cristina.

As a tourist you don’t have to worry about all of this, all you have to do is occupy yourself with the business of sopping up the cutting-edge fashion on Gurruchaga in Palermo, the inimitable pizza at El Cuartito, the unmistakable melancholy of a walk through Monserrat, or the simple joy of bumming around a confiteria and watching the world go by. It’s the rush of seeing a concert on Corrientes at the Gran Rex, the awe of going to the opera for $10 at the Teatro Colón, the otherworldliness of finding a milonga with real old-timers, and the wonder of hearing a good bandoneón player for the first time on the subway.

And don’t forget to get a know a few locals, they’ll make your trip all the more rewarding and, as happened with me, always give you a good reason to come back – as if you needed one.

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