Travelling to Buenos Aires, Argentina

Zen and the art of personal maintenance in Buenos Aires.

Credit: Matt O’Grady

Travelling to Buenos Aires, Argentina: Living boldly in the here and now.

Travelling to Argentina: I discover Zen and the art of personal maintenance, travelling in Buenos Aires.

It’s a cliché to say a city is “a study in contrasts” – a clash of old and new, rich and poor, conservative and radical – as it sets up a far-too-convenient narrative for lazy writers. And yes, Buenos Aires is all of those things and more.

But what’s most remarkable about the southern hemisphere’s most populous city – this May celebrating the 200th anniversary of its independence from Spain – is how good it is at projecting an aura of serene confidence, despite some remarkable hardships over the past two centuries, including brutal military dictatorships and a debilitating currency crisis. It is a city neither obsessed with its past nor fretting about its future, living boldly instead in the here and now.

This confidence is most immediately apparent in the city’s architecture. In the late 19th century, Buenos Aires had become a very wealthy place as agricultural exports soared, and the wealthy showed off their affluence by building elaborate mansions and having their political bidders do similarly with grand public buildings and wide Haussmann-style boulevards. More modern constructions have only added to the grandeur. On the ride in from the airport, my taxi driver has me count out, with evident pride, the number of lanes of the street we’re driving down, Av. 9 de Julio (BA’s answer to the Champs-Élysées). Diez y seis, I say. Apparently, it’s the widest street in the world, with medians replete with exuberant fountains and colourful gardens. Impressive, but all I can think is, How perfectly suited for a phalanx of tanks.

Weather  Buenos Aires is most pleasant in late spring (November) or fall (March to May).

Can’t Miss Cementerio de la Recoleta. This eye-popping necropolis is the final resting spot for Eva Perón, among others.

Best Bed Buenos Aires Sofitel. The French chain’s local outpost is housed in a stunning neoclassical tower located in Recoleta’s art district.

Cool Eats Parrillas are to BA what sushi is to Vancouver. These steak houses are plentiful and cheap. Try La Cholita in Barrio Norte. 1165 Av. Rodriguez Peña.

Porteños (as residents call themselves, in recognition of the port’s historic importance) are not a people who sweat the small stuff, or even the big stuff, if they sweat at all. During my visit, the subway system is plagued by sporadic wildcat strikes, throwing thousands onto the streets and into already-overcrowded busses. Argentina’s president, the preternaturally beautiful Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (dubbed “the Queen of Botox” in local media; Buenos Aires is reputedly the plastic surgery capital of the world, with an estimated one in 30 Argentines having gone under the knife), has just fired her central banker and raided the federal reserves to help pay off a staggering national debt.

The country is suffering through the worst drought in more than 50 years, double-digit inflation and growing unemployment. Yet Porteños, seemingly oblivious, pack BA’s many stylish restaurants and bars each night, eating at midnight, going out to dance at 2 a.m. and returning home as the sun rises over the Rio de la Plata. Is there work to go to later that morning? Who knows?

While Palermo, Recoleta and Barrio Norte are hubs of activity for BA’s young and eligible, the heart of the city lies in La Boca. This is where the tango got its start, where the first European settlement occurred and where much of BA’s feisty spirit finds its origins. Immigrants from Genoa, Italy, were the dominant group here through the late 19th century, and in 1882, after a lengthy general strike, they declared independence from Buenos Aires and raised the Genoese flag. The secession lasted a matter of days, but the nickname La República de la Boca stuck. Walking through La Boca’s narrow streets, I get a rare glimpse of BA’s grit, with roving bands of bicycling youth, mangy stray cats and impromptu anti-government rallies visible just off the main drag of El Caminito. But this too is fleeting: before I know it, I’m accosted by a pair of tango dancers and swept up once again by one of the world’s most alluring cities.