Imagining there would be divots to stomp was wishful thinking at the very least. There was to be no galloping in our polo match, let alone sufficient thwacking of the ball to dig into the pristine turf at Puesto Viejo polo club. No, ours was a more rambunctious affair: a jumble of horse riding novices, stick and ball dunces, and teacher Julio Casares, whose laughing encouragement could not be thwarted. We were really, really bad.
Still, there is no better place to earn first polo stripes than on the Argentine pampas, under bright sunshine and with a three-course barbecue lunch and Mendozan malbec as half-time refreshment. If this is how the other half live, I fully approve.
Argentina is a place of two halves or, more accurately, of swirling fragments that together form a beating dynamic of Spanish colonisation, jungle tribalism, Andean cheekbones, chilled Quilmes, all-pervading politics and an insatiable, almost religious, dedication to caramelised sugar and milk, or dulce de leche. It is everywhere; I'm surprised Julio's ponies aren't weaned on the sweet stuff.
Argentina's past, present and future are clearly not lost on ever-increasing numbers of Australians who are holidaying in South America, 35 per cent of whom stay on the continent for two months or more. Launching in December is Air New Zealand's new route to Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. The Auckland to Buenos Aires direct flight will cut the current 24-hours-plus trek, usually via Santiago, to about 16 hours for passengers from Sydney.
To understand the modern Buenos Aires – or "BsAs " – is to get to grips with its political heart. Never have I come across a people so democratically charged and spirited, and the political landscape looks in no danger of settling. I visit just weeks after prosecutor Alberto Nisman is found dead in his home on January 18 this year, a suspected murder. "Blue dollars" rule the roost when it comes to currency transactions, with the peso's freefall making illicit US dollars hugely attractive to locals. It's impossible to forget, too, that the country's most woeful economic crash happened just 15 years ago, and that military dictatorship is not simply a plot in a musical. Evita Peron is one in a line of figures who have stood up for the underclass and humbled the ruling forces. Her image stridently calls from the Ministry of Health, smiles from behind framed glass and graces 100 peso notes; the rich lady with a heart of the people will not be forgotten in the leafy squares and wide boulevards.
The city's dance form is a push and pull of power, of class and intuition.
It is on the walls of the city, perhaps, that pavement-level protest is most urgently scrawled and carefully planned. And so, Cecilia from the rising tour outfit, GrafittiMundo, tells us, walls become the site of subversion, of Portenos – as those from BsAs are called – refusing to be repressed. Colegiales, the hip suburb bordering the fashion and nightlife hub of Palermo Hollywood, is home to some of the city's most creative street art. From daubs in tar and gasoline by an artist called Jaz, to the bouncing, anime-style sweetness of PumPum, each work is a way of claiming freedom of speech, in its own small way. The more I learn about the city-wide and rampant trend of politicising, beautifying and claiming street-facing walls, the more I see the symbols and messages and learn the language of South America's fieriest politics. "For God, for us," says one scrawl, paid for, I am told, by a political party, which arms a team with spray cans.
Downtown, the Casa Rosada, the pink home of Argentina's chequered democracy, is the symbolically blood-stained centrepiece of a city that seeps history and a decadent, bygone era. From El Palacio de Aguas Corrientes water works, which appears to mimic a Parisian palace, to the eccentric whimsy of the Palacio Barolo, the city looks, feels and tastes European, its restaurants filled with that rightly famous beef and plates of pasta, brought to the southern hemisphere by the many thousands of Italian immigrants. Empanadas filled with carne or queso are ubiquitous fast food and everyone loves an alfajor - think melting moments filled with dulce de leche and dunked in chocolate – but it is beef that fuels this country. Alongside football and politics, that is.
At football legend Diego Maradona's first club stadium, a father and son are screaming obscenities at the referee, before a young woman and possibly a grandmother join them. Their language is beyond fruity as they leap from their seats, fling their arms in dismay and ear-splittingly berate anyone who dares not wear red and white. They are four of 30,000 screaming soccer fans here at Estadio Diego Armando Maradona, and Latino passion, drums, 200 riot policemen and healthy rivalry are fuelling a typically dramatic game. We're at a Sunday night game of Argentinos Juniors versus Estudiantes and I'm thankful we've come with soccer aficionados from Tangol football tours. Given we watch the game from behind barbed wire and with the constant presence of security guards, it's wise to go with a pro. With even a perfunctory interest in the game, it's worth going along to witness the infectious party atmosphere, a blend of carnival, drumming festival and shouting therapy.
Football is king in these parts, and despite the importance of Catholicism, made evident by the eerie relevance of Recoleta Cemetery – its posterity guaranteed by sheltering the remains of Evita and a plethora of heads of state – and the newfound celebrity of Buenos Aires' most notable man of the cloth, Pope Francis, church seems to take a back seat to the beautiful game. An angel of football stands in the Catedral Metropolitana, former sanctum of Pope Francis. Take the obsession to another level, as we did, and eat a post-match steak at football fanatics' haunt, La Brigada in San Telmo, where dining on grilled beef under a chandelier of footballs seems only natural. And, yes, the waiter makes a show of cutting the (very good) steak with a spoon.
But for sheer Buenos Aires night-time chic, the place to be seen is the eccentrically hip Floreria Atlantico on Arroyo in Retiro. Enter a flower shop and be ushered past vases of blooms to a door that leads down to one of the city's best-kept secrets, complete with seriously good cocktails and rustically grilled food.
I visit La Boca, home to the monolithic starkness of Boca Juniors' world-famous La Bombonera stadium, which – at least when empty – contrasts with the art-spangled novelty of nearby Caminito. Its equally famous colourful houses are facades to a barrio whose residents are among some of the most underprivileged in the city.
In Recoleta, I spend a calming half hour in the infectiously zany mind of Xul Solar, a great friend of Argentina's literary father, Jorge Luis Borges. Understatement does not feature highly on the agenda in BA – aside from the laid-back character and modest style of its inhabitants – and the Museo Xul Solar is no different. His world is dreamy, studied and playful, not unlike the tango that creeps on to street corners in the more postcardy suburbs.
Its steamy image aside, the city's dance form is a push and pull of power, of class and intuition. And many, many an hour of practice. Irishman Gerry and his wife Lucia – tanguero and tanguera – give me just enough tango lingo to not look like an owner of two left feet before taking me to the very hip and slightly intimidating Maldita Milonga (tango hall) inside a converted warehouse in San Telmo. As the El Afronte band bash and pump their box accordions, couples young and old, casual and tango-serious, fill the late night with adelante ochos and pasada. They make it look easy.
Outside and away from the sultry electricity of the milonga, couples idle over helados – ice-cream is taken seriously and is ordered in quarter, half and whole kilos – eaten sitting down and never on the move. The city might be in perpetual motion, but time is made for a spoonful of frozen dulce de leche flavour, and rightfully so.
Buenos Aires is a city of monuments and social fracture, of coffee, of literature, of graffiti, indulgence and struggle. Like its people and its history, it refuses to be put in a box.
From December, Air New Zealand will fly three times a week from Australian capitals to Buenos Aires via Auckland. See airnz.com.au.
Sofitel Retiro is in Buenos Aires' upmarket diplomatic quarter; rooms from about $320. See sofitel.com/gb/hotel-3253-sofitel-buenos-aires/index.shtml
La Brigada in San Telmo serves steaks in a decor of old-world soccer memorabilia. See parrillalabrigada.com.ar/
La Cabrera serves up steak (of course) in an eclectic, flea market-meets-private dining setting. See parrillalacabrera.com.ar/
Floreria Atlantico is a flower shop by day, buzzing, uber hip bar by night. See floreriaatlantico.com.ar/
The writer travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand.
FIVE EXPERIENCES TO TRY IN BA
At Puesto Viejo polo club, an introductory lesson, long lunch, game of polo and a professional match costs $190. a person. See puestoviejoestancia.com.ar/
SEE A SOCCER GAME
Tangol arranges tickets to all major local games. From about $19. See tangol.com/eng/football_matches.aspx?Country=AR
Lucia y Gerry Tango provides classes for all levels. Follow their lessons with a visit to a milonga. See luciaygerrytango.wordpress.com/
Read the city's fascinating history through its ubiquitous graffiti, from arresting street art to party political slogans. Graffitimundo tours http://graffitimundo.com/
Hit the bars, boutiques and cafes of Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho. The area around Thames, Costa Rica, Honduras and Uriarte streets makes for a leafy and hip walk.