Subscribe to Blog via Email
Follow me on TwitterMy Tweets
by Tiffany Figueiredo
Have you seen the tango? Not the spangly showboat numbers on Dancing with the Stars, but the true Argentine tango? It’s beautiful and moving, full of contradictions and juxtapositions.
It’s a simple dance, with only a few basic steps and rules. Yet it seems complex, with crazy improvisational footwork that requires total physical and mental connection between partners, like making love while standing. It can be base and raunchy having sprung up in the lowest neighborhoods along the Río de la Plata among prostitutes and poor working immigrants in the early 19th century. It’s elegant, too, for it eventually earned legitimacy, moving into Argentina’s society salons and galas after becoming popular with European glitterati.
Tango is multiculturalism, passion, sophistication, mystery and familiarity. So, too, is Buenos Aires, the city that claims tango as its own.
Buenos Aires can be a tough nut to crack. If you have any preconceived notions of what this city will be like, shed them. People call it the “Paris of South America” and I understand the comparison thanks to the faded grandeur, French-inspired architecture, sidewalk cafes and cultural offerings. But to my eyes, Buenos Aires is a mashup of European capitals, New York, a bit of the Wild West and something intangibly its own.
Like Manhattan, Buenos Aires is a city built by immigrants from all over and because they stayed and made lives and families with each other, it’s hard to tell who’s who. I recently spent a few days with a guide named Diana who I would have sworn was a Brit based on her proper English inflections and fair skin. This was a familiarization trip for my travel business and I was surprised that we were paired with a guide who wasn’t actually from Argentina — until she let us know, in no uncertain terms, that her family had been there for generations, and on a farm in the pampas no less. She is through and through a proud Argentine. I assumed our other guide, Fernanda, she of the darker skin and lively brown eyes was “truly” Argentine, but her roots instead, were of recent Italian immigrants. So the people of Buenos Aires have no prototype.
You can’t pick them out of a crowd based on looks, but you will know them by their commonalities: they are a quietly elegant, steak-eating, canine-loving, maté-drinking, slightly serious bunch who love to argue politics, stay out all night dancing and rabidly root for their favorite fútbol teams.
And that Wild West feel? The gaucho culture, with its bold ponchos, silver jewelry and riding gear, is well represented at all price points in the city’s street markets and gift shops, where the smell of leather is like a hypnotist’s prompt to open your wallet and pull out the cost of replacing it with a finer one. If it comes from or has to anything to do with a cow, deer or any other cloven-hoofed creature or horse, you’ll find it, alongside the ubiquitous maté cup, of course.
But then there is this: Buenos Aires has an edgy tension that feels a bit lawless. Peaceful protests in the Plaza de Mayo and work stoppages are common as citizens have long battled whatever (sometimes corrupt) government is in place. The best barrios, such as beautiful, monied La Recoleta with its packs of pampered pooches, high-end shops, five-star hotels and famed cemetery, sit near utterly squalid slums. A hip new waterfront neighborhood, Puerto Madero, is filling up fast with expensive apartments, retail and restaurants made of glass and steel and yet the shantytowns remain a problem no one seems to be able to solve.
It isn’t a dissimilar situation to that of other large cities and Buenos Aires is, through its ups and downs and the rise and fall and rise again of the peso, improving itself while maintaining tradition and culture. Barrios such as Recoleta and Retiro offer the best accommodations and surroundings for tourists, but not-to-be-missed is the aforementioned Puerto Madero for its trendy dining scene and Calatrava’s “Woman’s Bridge.”
That tango. One of the highlights of this trip was shopping for handmade tango shoes at tiny, hidden Comme il Faut. I can’t tango (yet), but my fancy shoes will be fabulous at parties and will always remind me of this sexy, dramatic city.
Where to Stay: the Alvear Hotels
Alvear Hotels Group operates three hotels in Buenos Aires proper. While in town, I stayed at two of them and toured the third. Each property is unique, but what they have in common, aside from their fantastic locations, are things you feel rather than see: gracious, old-school service, a dedicated and loyal staff, a hands-on family touch (one day I looked up from my lunch at the Icon to see the matriarch of the Sutton Dabbah family, who own the hotels, rearranging the lobby furniture). Those priceless intangibles are consistent at each property. Here’s how they differ:
Alvear Palace: The undisputed, grand dame of Buenos Aires, this storied hotel in monied, tree-lined Recoleta screams luxury and elegance. Built in 1932, it keeps its classic European style —think marble, gold, crystal and velvet. While most rooms feature traditional decor, new suites on the 10th and 11th floors are more contemporary and have access to butler service and a gorgeous private lounge housed under a glass dome with views for miles. Don’t miss the buzzy lobby bar, dinner at French-influenced La Bourgogne and high tea with the sophisticated local porteños in famed L’Orangerie. One of my favorite spots here is the dark and cozy art deco Champagne bar off the lobby. Indulging in a glass of bubbly while sinking back into a pile of leopard-prints pillow feels so decadent.
Alvear Art: The most wallet-friendly of the Alvears, the Art hotel sits in the centrally located Retiro neighborhood just steps from great shopping at Galleries Pacifico and Florida Street. While it bills itself as a design hotel, it has none of the coldness usually associated with those. It’s sleek and contemporary, but also warm and inviting with comfortable rooms decked out in quality materials with nice, big bathrooms. The fantastic top-floor wellness center features a sauna, hammam and heated pool that’s candle-lit at night, making for a fantastic place to unwind after a day of sightseeing or work.
Alvear Icon: New kid on the block on a new block. The development of Puerto Madero aims to takes advantage of Buenos Aires’ underutilized but lovely riverfront. In the middle of this trendy barrio is the newly built Alvear Icon, a thoroughly modern light-filled luxury hotel that’s all about the views of both the river and the city. Rooms and common spaces are inviting with warm neutrals, lots of marble and custom furnishings. From the glass-wrapped 31st-floor Grand View restaurant (opening in the fall) it feels as though you can see all of Buenos Aires. The Icon also will be home to South America’s first kosher fine dining restaurant, which will fit in perfectly with Puerto Madero’s burgeoning gastronomy scene.
Tiffany Figueiredo is a DFW-based travel advisor and longtime freelance luxury writer. Her blog Fondly, Fig (fondlyfig.com) launches in Q4.
Office: (732) 473-9982
Fax: (732) 473-9986