You can hardly throw a maté cup in Buenos Aires without hitting a tango salon. But with prices for the fanciest dinner-and-dancing shows hitting $180 per person, you're more than likely to find yourself over-paying for a made-for-tourists cliché. For a truer slice of Argentine life, look to one of the city's peñas—late-night parties where folk music and comfort food take center stage.
Peñas evolved out of the century-long tradition in which guitar-playing gauchos spent their evenings strumming songs about the pampas until sunrise. Over the past five years, as more and more people from the campo—the Argentine countryside—have made their way to the city, the old-school scene has reemerged. "I can come to a peña alone and always find someone to talk to," says Daniela Giorla, a 30-year-old Buenos Aires native who became a regular fixture at peñas after her first experience 18 months ago. "There are no bad vibes." When Esteban "El Colorado" López founded La Peña del Colorado in 1995, his goal was to draw in people like Giorla. "There were two or three peñas in the city at that time, but everyone thought they were for old people," he says. Now his spot, a Wild West–style place decorated with colorful signs, fills to capacity seven nights a week for 10 p.m. shows (delcolorado.com.ar, entry from $5). After the stage shows end around midnight, the second part of the evening begins: Members of the crowd borrow some of the 11 guitars López keeps on hand and start making the music themselves.
Peñas aren't just community jam sessions; they also offer a window onto the provinces. At Los Cardones, run by a brother-and-sister team from Salta (to the north), a wall-size photo of their hometown's cathedral hangs in the high-ceilinged space where Argentine folk-music stars like Los Nocheros perform and Salta-style beef and potato empanadas are served (cardones.com.ar, entry from $4). And at the Los Cumpas peña , held monthly in an old baroque theater, up to 1,000 people dance to cheerful, Andean carnavalito and huayno and Spanish-descended chacarera and samba songs, and refuel with spicy, Jujuy-style tamales (loscumpas.com.ar, entry from $5).
The recently renovated Miravida Soho, in the Palermo neighborhood, is a well-located base for those looking to explore the city's peña scene (miravidasoho.com, from $120). Six rooms with ebony floors and cast-iron balconies are spread throughout a 1930s mansion. And on the ground floor, an intimate wine bar serves as an ideal meeting spot for guests to gear up for the night's real action.
KEYS TO THE CITY
Taxi from Ezeiza International Airport (EZE) to Palermo: about $27 (30 to 45 minutes)
Lingo to Learn
Guitarreada (gi•tar•ray•ah•dah): The sing-along portion of a peña
Go native: Our recent search for nonstop flights showed the best fares on national carrier Aerolineas Argentinas ($952 round trip from Miami)—$500 less than the cheapest fare from an American carrier.
Next! Design in São Paulo >>