In my book, Argentina has it all. Great topography, mountains, wines, food — and one of the few remaining destinations with a great U.S. dollar exchange rate. Yes, the dollar is still king in Argentina, where one George Washington will get you more than three pesos.
When traveling, it’s not just the cost of getting there that should concern you — but the cost of being there. And that’s where Argentina shines, on just about every level. (Weather-wise, the country really shines: The average summer temperature is 84 degrees, and in the winter, a mild 57 degrees.)
And as news of the affordability of the region to Americans spreads north, more and more of us are actually moving there.
And if you have a sense of history, Argentina is perhaps the only South American country that gives you a European experience. It all starts in Buenos Aires, a sprawling city of 3 million people — the third-largest city in Latin America.
But the key to understanding — and appreciating — Buenos Aires is to know the barrios — the neighborhoods that buzz with culture, nightlife and green spaces. There are 47 barrios in Buenos Aires, and every time I go to the city, I head for at least three of them: the pedestrian Calle Florida in Palermo, the exclusive Recoleta and the bohemian San Telmo. And don’t miss a visit to Plaza de Mayo, the large, attractive open square that has been the site of many important historical events, including Eva Peron's (better known as Evita's) famous speech.
The other good news: U.S. citizens do not need a visa to travel to Argentina.
However, airfares tend to be somewhat high: Average airfare in late August from JFK to Buenos Aires runs about $851 roundtrip. But again, the savings happen when you land.
La Ciudad: This bookstore is located just across the street from Jorge Luis Borges’ apartment. The author spent a lot of time there and many pictures of him adorn the walls, while the store maintains the feel of a “private library.” Maipu 971, Galeria del Este, between Florida and Maipu
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: This is a relatively small museum with great permanent and rotating exhibitions, and it’s free! Av. Del Libertador 1473, www.mnba.org.ar
Cheese room at the Park Hyatt:Don’t miss out on the cheese room at the Park Hyatt. Located in Duhau Restaurant & Vinoteca, guests can make an appointment to try out Argentine Malbecs, artisanal cheeses chosen by the Maître Fromager, served with breads, dips and fruits. +54 11 5171 1340
Trips outside the cityHead right out to the Pampas and the legendary estancias — the great family-owned ranches with the bigger-than-life gauchos (cowboys). There's also great horseback riding and steaks.
Or drive over to the domestic airport in Buenos Aires and head west on a two-hour flight to Mendoza, one of the great surprises of South America. It’s Argentinean wine country, and is home to more than 880 wineries.
Though Chilean wines may have the best reputation of all South American vintages, there's a great surprise awaiting you in Mendoza. Chileans, for the most part, make their wines for export. Argentines, on the other hand, are wine lovers, and they make their wines with a passion for drinking it themselves. As a result, be prepared for an experience that easily rivals — or even exceeds — some of the other great wine regions of the world.
It’s the land of the Malbec, and the tours to these wineries, with the majestic Andes as a natural backdrop, are memorable. And yes, most of the wineries will actually ship the bottles back to you. One other note: Every February, the Park Hyatt hosts the Masters of Food and Wine, a five-day event featuring the top chefs and winemakers of Argentina, not to mention visiting chefs and winemakers from around the world.
Specialized tripsTo book specialized trips, contact a man named Eduardo Outeiral (firstname.lastname@example.org), the co-founder of a travel company called Far Away and Long Ago; his finely tailored travel experiences allow you to see Argentina with a sense of history and style. He’s an experienced mountaineer and yachtsman, and offers incredibly affordable, over-the-top Buenos Aires experiences.
Recently, Eduardo drove me from Buenos Aires for 40 minutes to San Isidro, the top residential suburb in the north district of Buenos Aires. Minutes later we were on the river, speeding on a power racing boat to a private island in the delta for lunch.
There’s another river experience as well. You can start in the San Fernando harbor and board a 55-foot yacht and head out into the Rio de la Plata delta toward La Becasina, a private lodge located in Arroyo Las Cañas, a small stream on one of the islands of the Paraná River’s Delta.
Eduardo also provides great helicopter flights over the city, with a landing at the Estancia La Concepcion for dinner — it’s one of the largest Pampas ranches. There, you’ll do horseback and carriage rides, often followed by intramural polo matches.
All of these trips are affordable, and cost less money than nightly room rates at many Manhattan hotels.
If you do decide to go on a day trip, always try to get back to Buenos Aires in time for the weekend. That’s when you’ll find the market in San Telmo, the bohemian, funky area with loads of galleries, craft stalls and street performers. Be sure to take a stroll down the main strip of Calle Defensa.
You’ll find everything from butchers cutting meats to antique shops. There are two entrances located at 961 Defensa and Bolívar 998. Here, you will find street tango dancers and the usual flea market attractions. But once again, bring cash and get ready to buy antique brassworks and old pewter.
Most first-time visitors get talked into seeing a tango show. And you can always go to a place like Piazzolla Tango on Calle Florida, where you can catch dinner and a show in a theater setting, for about $75 per person. Don’t miss the collection of artwork located in the building as well. Florida 165, San Martin 170, piazzollatango.com
But my recommendation is to skip the tourist-tailored performances and head instead for any number of local milongas, barrio tango halls that are scattered throughout Buenos Aires. For about $10, you get to sit and watch the Argentines as they show up to dance — and these folks take it seriously. One warning, though: Don’t go before 11 p.m. — so you can always grab a bite to eat first.
You can’t talk about wine without talking about food, and in this, Argentina excels as well. In Buenos Aires, one of the more historic steak restaurants is called La Brigada. It features about 20 different cuts and types of meat, but the signature attraction of this restaurant — located near San Telmo — is twofold.
The meat is so tender that it is carved tableside ... with a spoon. And then, there’s the affordability factor. Recently I took five friends to dinner there. And my friends came hungry. They ordered virtually everything on the menu. Appetizers, entrees, side dishes, wine, after-dinner drinks and, of course, dulce de leche, a diet-killing ice cream. And I was paying. When the bill came, I was expecting a high-six-figure amount. Instead, the tab — including tip — totaled just $104. Try that in any city in the U.S!
Some other restaurant recommendations:
La Cabaña Las Lilas: One of the top steakhouses in Buenos Aires, this restaurant is where you can have an enormous steak dinner starting at $10. Even before you dive into the meat selection, you can snack on the tableful of items like cheese, olives, tomatoes, anchovies and garlic bread. The restaurant raises its own cattle, and you can have an enormous meal starting at just $10. 516 Ave. Alicia Moreau de Justo, Puerto Madero
La Cabrera: This is another top choice for jetsetters and trendsetters, and totally affordable for Americans. It’s located in the Palermo Soho district, and offers a French twist on traditionally Argentine beef. I go here for lunch every time I’m in the city. 54-11-4831-7002, Cabrera 5099, Buenos Aires
Spettus Steak House: You can find more than 20 cuts of meat here, including plenty of barbecued and grilled dishes, along with a wide variety of cheeses. 54 11 43344126, Alicia Moreau de Justo 876, Puerto Madero
Las Cañitas: Did you know that Argentina is also known for gelato? Italian immigrants brought this treat down south and it had a lasting impact. The biggest chains are Freddo and Munchi’s. Visit the Las Cañitas for a wider selection, including Saverio, which serves unusual stuff like pears in Burgundy and kumquats in whiskey. A great standby flavor — actually number one for me — is always dulce de leche.
Gran Bar Danzon: Even if you can’t make it to Mendoza, you can taste incredible Argentine wines right in Buenos Aires. Gran Bar Danzon has one of the biggest wine menus in the city, which you can mix and match to create your own tasting. Libertad 1161, (5411) 4811 1108, www.granbardanzon.com.ar/danzon
LodgingThe neighborhoods of Puerto Madero, Palermo, Centro, Retiro and Recoleta are all good choices.
Marriott Plaza: This is an affordable, centrally located luxury hotel overlooking Plaza San Martin and surrounded by shops and boutiques. Starting rates in mid-May, $195, late August, $215; +(54) 11-4318-3000, Calle Florida 1005
Hotel Madero by Sofitel: Located in Puerto Madero, this 165-room hotel is even more affordable and many rooms have views of the docks. Check out the on-site restaurant Red for Argentine-French fusion cuisine. Rosario Vera Penaloza 360, Dique 2, +(54) 11/5776-7777, hotelmadero.com
Mansion Dandi Royal: This hotel actually offers daily lessons to guests. It’s called the Tango Residential Academy. You can score a three-night tango package for $170 per person. Piedras Street 922-936, mansiondandiroyal.com
Finally, a note about the challenge of getting there: Be a contrarian. Remember, this is southern hemisphere travel, so go during our summer (their winter) for cheaper airfares. But even if there are no real bargains in the air, once on the ground, the low cost of being in Buenos Aires more than positively compensates for the cost of getting there.