With a street life as colourful as its famous architecture, Buenos Aires rewards the adventurous spirit, writes Isobel King.
I'm in Argentina's birthplace of tango and one of our posse has disappeared. It's a national holiday and while the rest of Buenos Aires sleeps, in La Boca the party is just warming up.
It's not even lunchtime and the music is pulsing, bars are overflowing and street performers, buskers and tango aficionados are strutting their stuff, playing up to the boisterous crowds. A figure in a brimmed hat, red scarf and flowing coat suddenly swivels into view, dipping and weaving in the arms of a swarthy Latino. I blink twice before realising it's our demure, lost friend, transformed into a fiery tango queen. In this exuberant capital, the local portenos (literally, people of the port) love to party and, eventually, everyone succumbs.
Food, of course, figures prominently and in Argentina that means meat - great hunks of cow tossed over flames, served with chunky chips and washed down with a luscious malbec from Mendoza, the country's famous wine region.
Our first, jet-lagged night is spent around a large dining table in the apartment of British expat Leon Lightman, who runs the Argentine Experience. It's a free-wheeling cooking class-turned-introduction to some of Argentina's regional specialties: empanadas, chimichurri (a spicy sauce for meat), thickly cut steaks flamed to perfection, malbec and the sickly sweet dulce de leche (served with pancakes in this case) that's akin to caramelised brown sugar. It's like a cracker dinner party, with a crash course in local food and culture thrown in. (Leon has since upgraded and moved his operation into a warehouse, so if planning a visit expect a different vibe.)
We later meet an enterprising young Australian named Anne Reynolds, who, with a local business partner, has started up a concept called Fuudis. These women know their food and take newbies direct to the best spots.
We lunch at a packed Italian bistro called Il Matterello in what feels like the industrial backblocks of La Boca, the home turf of Argentina's legendary Boca Juniors football team. The stadium is just around the corner.
Another night we hop restaurants in the trendy neighbourhood of Palermo Hollywood in one of the excursions tailored for those who want a smattering of everything: tapas at a well-known local haunt, Guido; entrees at a flash new pasta place called Olivetti; main course at the ultra-cool Mendoza at Leopoldo; winding up at the Jauja gelato shop, with its staggering array of flavours.
Reynolds also introduces us to Puratierra, the infinitely memorable restaurant of Martin Molteni. This young chef has picked up a swag of accolades and is clearly passionate about his food, his country and creating the kind of welcoming environment that makes you want to come back instantly for more.
The guides for much of our stay are Luciano and Francisco from Cultura Cercana, who speak perfect English (one is a former lawyer, the other a sociologist) and infuse their commentary with a wonderfully wry sense of humour. They make recommendations, then take you wherever you want. You can't get more personalised than that.
Our entirely flexible rambling had many highlights, including Recoleta Cemetery. Locals buy a spot here for the same price as a small apartment - that's if you can even find a spot. It's in one of the city's most exclusive suburbs, with the street leading up, Avenida Alvear, sporting all the famous French and Italian brands. The cemetery is a suburb in itself (5.5 hectares), with narrow laneways laid in a grid, lined either side with the most unbelievably lavish mausoleums. Some of the city's most famous figures are buried here, including Eva Peron. Allow at least two hours.
The park leading up the cemetery has a huge weekend arts and crafts market, and the prices are fixed, which removes the stress of haggling. Many of the stallholders are artisans selling their own designs, so it's a nice chance to mingle and chat with a few locals. The market has quality stuff - not super cheap - but some of the best shopping in Buenos Aires.
A vastly different market is Feria de Mataderos, in the scruffy end of town. I've never seen so many rusted-out old bangers, vehicles held together by mere threads of metal. One particularly inventive "small business" was the woman with her plank of wood. For a few coins, she'd pop it in the gutter so drivers could mount the kerb and park just about anywhere.
Sunday is fair day in Mataderos, when performers of all ages and styles play to the crowds on a makeshift stage. Stalls are a mix of food, clothes, trinkets and jewellery, and at the end of it all you find a spot at one of the communal outdoor tables, tuck into some rustic food and rough wine, and simply soak up the lively atmosphere.
Everyone has to visit the colourful houses of Caminito in La Boca. It's a compulsory stop on any city tour. This neighbourhood down by the docks was originally settled by Italian migrants, who expressed their creativity by painting their simple tin houses in flamboyant colours. The carnival atmosphere on the day we visited, set against the backdrop of brilliantly coloured houses, lent the whole scene a Fellini atmosphere. La Boca definitely has a bohemian bent (check out the ultra-modern Fundacion PROA gallery, just beside the houses; the upstairs cafe and balcony overlooks the water) but a rough reputation, and outside this little artistic hub it's a fairly soulless landscape.
To see the city at its most drop-dead cool, spend a few hours walking around the shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants of Palermo Soho and nearby Palermo Hollywood. It's Manhattan meets Paris and both suburbs are easy to conquer by foot. There are some jaw-dropping fashions and divine shops tucked into a tasteful few streets. For big-name designer gear, head to leafy Recoleta.
The Sofitel Buenos Aires is in a quiet street in Retiro, just a stone's throw from the designer strip of Recoleta across the 14-lane Avenida 9 de Julio, apparently the world's widest street. The 140-room hotel is breathtakingly grand; there was an audible "wow" as we collectively stumbled through its revolving glass doors in the morning darkness, exhausted from a long flight and an infuriatingly long wait for our baggage to hit the world's slowest carousel.
A giant atrium soars above the marbled walkway leading up to the front desk, and everywhere you look the bones of the original building shine through the thoughtful "re-imagination" by a local architect and French design team in 2002. The hotel is actually three original buildings - the tall 1920s Bencich Tower at the back and two smaller buildings at the front - woven together by thoughtful architecture. Neoclassical, art deco and contemporary are happy bedfellows here. The rooms are equally charming and many a rejuvenating malbec was enjoyed in the comfy sofas of the bar.
Isobel King travelled to Buenos Aires courtesy of SkyTeam and Accor.
Cross the tides of time
An obligatory side trip for anyone in Buenos Aires for more than a few days is the fast ferry trip across the gargantuan Rio de la Plata to the cobbled streets of Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Were it not for the telltale muddy waters, you'd swear you were crossing open ocean. This is the world's broadest river: 220 kilometres at its widest point. Doing this day trip is pure time travel. Board in the big smoke and disembark an hour or so later in a place so quaint you may as well have travelled by Tardis.
A short walk around the waterfront from where the ferry deposits you is the Barrio Historico, a network of mossy, cobbled streets, open plazas, little taverns, stone houses and historic landmarks, such as the lighthouse and Uruguay's oldest church. It's a former Portuguese settlement that dates back to 1680 and was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1995, and for good reason. Combine a few hours' clambering over cobbles with a leisurely lunch in one of the open plazas. Heaven.
A word of warning: Buenos Aires can lull you into a false sense of security because it feels so safe and friendly. We were repeatedly warned to keep our personal belongings close. I was perplexed by security measures that felt over the top: the shops in Palermo that lock their doors, so you have to knock to enter; the careful inspection of taxi change by our guide, who assured us fake notes are often slipped in; the plethora of suited security at our hotel, draped in wires, speaking into their coat jackets. Why?
Then on the final night, sitting outside a small restaurant in Palermo, my friend turned to find her bag suddenly gone — camera, wallet, the lot. It was hooked on her chair, snugly wedged between us, and there was only one other table of diners. No one had come near us all night except the waiter and — wait a minute, the little gypsy boy politely asking for money. Such a fleeting encounter we barely noticed it. After such a lovely stay it was a sour note to end on, but we can't say we weren't warned.
Getting there Aerolineas Argentinas, a SkyTeam member, has four direct flights a week from Sydney to Buenos Aires, from $1464 return. Australians must buy a $US100 ($95) visa on arrival.
Fundacion PROA gallery and exhibition centre, Avenida Pedro de Mendoza, Caminito, La Boca. proa.org.
Recoleta Cemetery, 1790 Junin, Recoleta. cementeriorecoleta.com.ar.
Bosques de Palermo park, Palermo.
Feria de Mataderos, corner Lisandro de la Torre and de los Corrales avenidas, Mataderos.
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. Ferries leave from Darsena Norte terminal in Buenos Aires. Information and bookings, buquebus.com.
Puratierra, 3 de Febrero, Belgrano, puratierra.com.ar.
Il Matterello, 517 Martin Rodriguez, La Boca.
Guido, 3943 Cervino, Palermo, guidorestaurant.com.ar.
Olivetti, 3800 Cervino, Palermo, trattoriaolivetti.com.
Mendoza at Leopoldo, 3732 Cervino, Palermo, leopoldorestaurante.com.ar.
Jauja gelato, 3901 Cervino, Palermo.
Sofitel Buenos Aires, 841 Arroyo, Retiro, sofitel.com. Rooms from $239 a night.