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Visit Buenos Aires,
Paris of the South

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Visit Buenos Aires, Paris of the South

01/09/2003 - Updated 06:52 PM ET

By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY

Kevin Thomas didn't fly 7,500 miles seeking a bargain. But by the close of his first day in this cosmopolitan city, the 38-year-old San Diego engineer knew he was in a place where even the budget-minded traveler can live large.

In the morning, he took a half-day city tour that included a tango show, for $6. A steak and a beer at lunch cost $3 at a trendy downtown eatery. Later, he stopped at an elegant outdoor cafe for a $1 espresso, followed by two mountainous scoops of Italian-style ice cream for a buck. And now it's 11 p.m. and he's seated among throngs of other al fresco diners at a popular neighborhood restaurant struggling to finish the juicy slab of beef that eclipses his plate. He pours the last drops from a bottle of local wine, concedes defeat to the unfinished steak and requests the check. His share of the tab: $4.

By Rafael Wollman for USA TODAY

Tango dancers entertain shoppers and vendors at the San Telmo market in Buenos Aires.











For much of the past decade, prices in Buenos Aires rivaled those in spendthrift cities such as New York and Tokyo. Now, a year into an economic crisis that has shaved almost two-thirds off the value of its currency, Argentina is suddenly one of the world's top foreign travel bargains. A double room at a four-star hotel in the heart of the city goes for $75 or less. Dinner with wine at a top restaurant can be had for $20. Top-quality handmade leather shoes cost $60 or less. An hour-long massage at a luxury hotel costs $30.

What a difference a devaluation makes.

The collapse of the Argentine peso, which from 1991 to 2001 was pegged to the U.S. dollar, has been devastating to Argentines, who saw their savings evaporate when the currency was allowed to float on the open market a year ago. Its value has climbed slightly since Thomas' visit in late November, and the currency is now trading at 3.29 pesos to the dollar.

In the meantime, more than half of the country's 36 million people are living in poverty. A handful of presidents have come and gone. Working Argentines, from shopkeepers to academics, are angry. And they're not shy about expressing it.

"Sometimes I wish we were Japanese," says Jorge Vieira, desk manager at the splendid Alvear Palace Hotel in the city's exclusive Recoleta neighborhood. "Can you imagine this country if the Japanese ran it? We've got land. Weather. Wine. And look at us."

Typical travel costs in three cheap cities


Buenos Aires

Cape Town


Four-star hotel




Museum admission

30 cents

93 cents


Mass transit ticket

21 cents

58 cents



75 cents

82 cents

96 cents

Big Mac




Indeed, that anger seems to be directed at politicians and not at the growing number of tourists. About 3 million foreign visitors were expected in 2002, a 16% increase over 2001. They came despite last year's devaluation-sparked demonstrations, which received heavy play on cable news stations. Image-wary tourism officials reacted by emphasizing the European roots and first-world sensibilities of a nation whose capital city has long been called the Paris of the South.

Their mantra: Argentina is safe, attractive and economical.

"For the first time, people are realizing that tourism isn't recreation. It's business," says Fabian Doman, spokesman for the Argentine Embassy in Washington.

This capital of tango, asado (grilled meat) and Freud (a reported 40,000 psychotherapists practice here) surprises first-time visitors, many of whom stop here only briefly en route to hunting, fishing and high adventure in Argentina's southern Patagonia region.

"It's not like other Latin American cities," says Lucas Rentero, an urban-history graduate student and part owner of the tour company Eternautas. "It's European, but it's not. It's like New York or San Francisco but with a Hispanic background and without the economic growth. Buenos Aires is complex."

Perhaps. But to the casual visitor, it is a calm and welcoming place. The city strikes a middle-class, even affluent, pose. Its broad avenues, pedestrian malls and public parks are flanked by grand European-inspired architecture from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Argentina grew fat off grain, cattle and wool exports. Despite the economic tough times, warm summer weekends draw scores outdoors. Avenida Santa Fe, which cuts a broad swath across the city, is crowded with shoppers and browsers. (Though in stores such as Cash Converters, selling everything from used hammers to electric guitars, business is brisker than in the pricey French cosmetics store across the way.)

If you go...

Since the devaluation of the Argentine peso last year, just about anything homegrown is a bargain.

Some international chain hotels are priced in the $100-$120 a night range, including Marriott, Intercontinental and Hilton, though getting the best rate usually means shopping for deals. Some hoteliers predict that in the coming year, lodgings will adopt two rate structures - one for foreigners and one for locals. If that's the case, dealing with a local travel agent could yield lower rates.

For now, no-frills but centrally located hotels such as the Gran Hotel Argentino go for about $20 a night, including tax and breakfast. In lively Palermo Viejo, boutique lodgings such as 1555 Malabia House are about $40 a night with tax and breakfast.

Some shops and hotels offer 10% discounts for paying cash.

A sampler of costs:

Dinner and tango show at El Querandi: $33.

Day-long excursion to an estancia, or ranch, with barbecue and horseback riding, through Tangol ( $25-$30.

Walking tour of downtown with a historian guide: $3 through Eternautas (

Information: Argentine Government Tourism Office: 305-442-1366 or

In the Recoleta neighborhood, sunbathers litter the grassy slopes of Plaza Intendente Alvear. Snaking throughout the park are hundreds of artisan booths displaying leather goods, ceramics and jewelry at the weekly crafts fair. At sidewalk eateries, diners linger over lunch. Nearby in Recoleta Cemetery, final stop for Buenos Aires' upper crust, knots of tourists wander in awe amid ornate, castlelike crypts.

In San Telmo, the historic district south of downtown, merchants at the Sunday flea market are decked out in elaborate costumes to celebrate the 32nd anniversary in late November of the renowned fair. It is a raucous display that masks the economic crisis. A belly dancer and a giant cheese wedge strut to a brass band in the cobbled square as a man masquerading as an oily, machine-gun-toting politician looks on. Across the square, a sixtysomething woman whose legs still look fantastic wrapped in black fishnet stockings engages in a seductive street-side tango.

Inside his antiques shop — one of 250 crammed along the narrow streets of the neighborhood — Juan Carlos Maugeri looks out at the crowds. Up to 15,000 flock to San Telmo for the weekly market, when 270 additional dealers join the permanent shopkeepers. During Argentina's heyday as one of the world's richest nations, the Argentine elite imported finery from around the world, and some of it is for sale here. "People can't imagine the quality of things we have," he says.

Business has picked up "now that we are trying to transform into a reasonable country," Maugeri adds. "The great difference is that tourists are coming."

The beggars are out, too, though in no greater numbers than most large cities. So are the demonstrators in Plaza de Mayo, the political heart of Buenos Aires. This is where Eva Perón (and later, Madonna doing Evita) rallied supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, that overlooks the grand plaza. And it is still where Argentines go to express their disaffection. But this is a democracy, after all; there have always been protests here, locals say. Even in the most turbulent days after the devaluation, curious bystanders felt unthreatened enough to videotape the scene.

The situation is different in some areas off the tourist trail, however, where the frustrations of the poor erupt in more violent ways.

"Buenos Aires is a bubble," Maugeri says. "I could drive you 10 minutes away in my car and you'll see another country."

But in the more affluent areas of the city, the most apparent hazards are the plentiful dog droppings, scattered like urban land mines awaiting the unwary footfall. In lively neighborhoods such as Palermo Viejo, a bohemian section of parks, one-of-a-kind boutiques and ethnic eateries, diners spill out of the restaurants onto the sidewalks until well after midnight. On weekends, hundreds jam the neighborhood's centerpiece park, Plaza Serrano, for drinks and conversation. And would-be lotharios eye perspective partners at milongas, tango dance halls.

In revitalized areas such as this one, young artists and entrepreneurs see new possibilities in the midst of economic turmoil. Designers of clothing, housewares and jewelry showcase their creations in chic, rehabbed storefronts. Homegrown merchandise is in new demand since the devaluation, which increased the price of imported goods.

For Lucas Markowiecki, 27, the devaluation has meant new business for his tour company, Tangol. This morning, he squired four Minnesota tango teachers around town. The other day, he accompanied a Houston cop to a soccer match. Tomorrow, he'll go shopping with cruise ship passengers from Alabama.

"Tourists used to come and buy a leather jacket, eat beef and maybe go to a tango show," he says. "Now they're staying longer and spending more. There's a world of opportunity."