Buenos Aires: The Low-Cost Capital of South America

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But don't cry for Argentina-fly down to the land of tango and Evita and boost the economy by taking advantage of sensational prices and deals.

Not too long ago (say, a year), Argentina was a high-priced stop on the South American circuit, either to be skipped altogether or endured as a wallet-busting option. Not anymore. A recent, panicky devaluation of the Argentine peso to nearly one third of its former value against the U.S. dollar ($1 now buys about three pesos; it used to get only one peso) has made Buenos Aires into a bargain bonanza with spectacular prices for formerly untouchable luxuries. B.A. now offers $4 steaks and $3 lessons in the tango. Another price comparison is even more dramatic. Feel like popping into a four-star hotel for a suite with a gorgeous view, living room, and whirlpool tub? Then head upon arrival to the Amerian Hotel (Reconquista 699, 011-54-11/4317-5100, www.amerian.com), which charged a forbidding $350 a night for that room two years ago. Now the same room is about $100, and there are some renting for as little as $60.

Buenos Aires

It also remains a pleasure-loving city. Porte os, as the natives of this port along the banks of the Rio de la Plata are known, are not letting economic troubles depress them. Restaurants, clubs, and caf,s are packed with locals partying their blues away. And tourists are around in large numbers, too-2003 is expected to break all records for international visitors. Images of worried runs-on-the-bank might have filled your TV screens only a year or so ago, but that agony has now subsided, and the city has placed extra police in areas you're likely to visit. It's as easy and safe to visit B.A. as ever. So, if you have champagne tastes and a beer income, this one is for you.

Three recommended areas of Buenos Aires-Avenida de Mayo, San Telmo, and the Microcentro-put you within walking distance of, or a 3 peso ($1) cab ride to, virtually everything. We've discussed each section separately, and also grouped our hotel recommendations separately within each of the three sections.

(When dialing the numbers that follow in this article from the United States, first dial 011-54-11.)

Navenida de Mayo

Begin your visit at the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the Casa Rosada, closely associated with Eva Peron (better known as Evita), the wife of the late President Juan Peron. The balcony here is where she made those speeches more than 50 years ago. There's no cost to tour the building's heavily ornamented rooms, filled with art collected as the country grew in wealth and power.

Currently, the building's famous balcony overlooks a political event every Thursday afternoon, when the Madres de Plaza de Mayo engage in a demonstration in which they carry pictures of their children-some of the 30,000 who "disappeared" during the military government's "dirty war" from 1976 to 1983. The regime's crushing defeat by Britain during the Malvinas (or Falklands) War finally brought democracy. Still, the mothers continue to hope for justice.

A top hotel choice in the area, adorned with marble and bronze touches, is Castelar Hotel & Spa (Av. de Mayo 1152, 4383-5000, www.castelarhotel.com.ar), where free breakfast and use of an enormous downstairs sauna are included in low prices starting at 140 pesos ($47) for a double. Just down the block is the belle epoque Nuevo Mundial Hotel (Av. de Mayo 1298, 4383-0011, www.stelfair.com/argentina/mundial). While the latter two-star charmer shows its age and is popular with a young backpacking crowd, why should they be the only ones enjoying doubles starting at 50 pesos ($17), with breakfast? (Some of the Nuevo Mundial's units even have enormous balconies overlooking the avenue.) You'll also be dazzled by a nearby bargain four-star hotel actually called the Dazzler (Libertad 902, 4816-5005, www.dazzlerhotel.com), which sometimes offers Web specials as low as $37 a night per double. Its location is especially convenient to the Corrientes theater district, and all rooms come with free Internet, cable, and daily newspapers.

Note that the Dazzler is just around the corner from one of the most beautiful buildings in town, the 1908 Teatro Colon (4378-7344, www.teatrocolon.org.ar), host to many of the world's finest opera singers, and ornamented with gilded columns and sculpture. Tours are conducted every day but Monday for 10 pesos ($3.33; enter at Tucum n 1171). Many of those bejeweled Evita images you've seen show her attending events here.

If this area doesn't satisfy your Evita curiosity, then take a 3 peso ($1) cab ride to Recoleta Cemetery close to the intersections of Guido and Junin. Find her by following the tourists or looking for the tomb with the most flowers and plaques. Recoleta, free to the public, is full of mausoleums and sculptural wonders. If you come on a Saturday or a Sunday, you'll also encounter the Recoleta Market just in front of the cemetery entrance. Stalls are packed with bargains, like 10 peso ($3.33) T-shirts and 6 peso ($2) leather belts.

It also costs nothing to view the Evita Monument in Plaza Rub,n Dario, only a few blocks away near the intersections of Austria and Libertador. At the National Library (Ag?ero 2502, 4808-6000), which often has impressive free exhibits, you'll find still another bronze monument to Evita. In the distance behind her is the free National Museum of Fine Arts (Av. del Libertador 1473, 4803-8814), full of important European and Argentine paintings. And you can then grab another cab to the new Evita Museum (Lafinur 2988, 4807-9433, www.evitaperon.org) in the Palermo neighborhood-admission is only 5 pesos ($1.67).

San Telmo: Home of the Tango Even more sexy than the tango is getting to see and learn it for free or next to nothing. Slap on your dancing shoes and head to San Telmo, the world's tango headquarters. Buildings (some colonial) in this specially protected area must remain in a semi-deteriorated state, imparting a unique, ungentrified charm as you stroll along.

An important event is Sunday's San Telmo Market in Plaza Dorrego, stocked with all the antique and belle-epoque decor of once-wealthy Buenos Aires homes. Recent buys included brass door plates for 15 pesos ($5) and filigreed candelabra for 60 pesos ($20). Within the market: free tango shows all Sunday long, inviting audience participation.

Buenos Aires residents take tango to the streets during the annual Tango Festival (February 28 to March 4, 2004; www.festivaldetango.com.ar), a fabulous citywide event that could have been lifted from a budget traveler's dreams. Many of the shows are free, others have stunningly low prices for tango performers that few can match.

Accommodations? The small scale of the area makes it light on hotel choices, but the atmosphere is worth soaking up. Hotel Victoria (Chacabuco 726, 4361-2135; doubles starting at 25 pesos/$8.33) is a cozy place with a central patio; rooms come with or without bath; and guests can use the kitchen or laundry as they wish.

For meals, Mitos Argentinos (Humberto Primo 489, 4362-7810) offers a remarkable 17 peso ($5.67) lunch special including drink and dessert, with a free tango show on Sundays from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Afterward, stay for lessons for a few pesos more. Just down the street is the charmingly quaint Caf, del Arbol (Humberto Primo 424, 4361-9133), which offers music nightly after 10:30 p.m. Stop in for a lomito, a steak sandwich, for only 6 pesos ($2) and wash it down with a beer for 3 ($1).

A spectacularly authentic eatery is the Plaza Dorrego Bar (Defensa 1098, 4361-0141), its wooden chairs, ceiling fans, and old bottles evoking the Buenos Aires of 100 years ago. The country's top writers and artists frequented the bar for decades. Its prices are a blast from the past, too: 1.5 pesos (50¢) for coffee, 3 pesos ($1) for a hamburger, 6 pesos ($2) for the filling Dorrego salad.

MicroCentro: For Micro Prices The Microcentro is the city's hopping downtown area, full of office workers and the busy shops, services, and bars that cater to them. Its main streets, Florida and Lavalle, are pedestrian shopping corridors, closed to traffic since 1968. Here you'll find Galerias Pacifico (at Florida and Av. Cordoba), a gorgeous 1889 building converted into a fancy shopping center, and now also home to some of the city's best cultural offerings. Twice daily there's a free tour of the 1940s murals decorating this structure. Meet under the main cupola at 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Then, every Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., a free tango show is presented in the food court. Or take the escalators to the second floor to the Borges Cultural Center (5555-5359, www.ccborges.org.ar), charging 4 pesos ($1.33) admission, where you'll find a cinema and room after room of high-quality painting, sculpture, and photo exhibits. Last, and a real treat, the same building houses the Escuela Argentina de Tango (4312-4990), where you can take lessons starting at 10 pesos ($3.33). In past decades, instructors here have taught a great many movie stars how to tango.

Keep walking up Florida until it ends at the graceful Plaza San Martin, which is always packed with locals out enjoying themselves under the enormous trees. (You'll even find mothers at two in the morning with their kids on the swing sets, training them for their late nights as adults in this 24-hour city.)

A great many modern three- and four-star hotels are found in this part of town. The four-star Lafayette Hotel (Reconquista 546, 4393-9081, www.lafayettehotel.com.ar) has spacious rooms-some large enough for an entire family-friendly service, and free breakfast. Doubles start at 160 pesos ($53) per night.

Fine dining at an exceptionally low tab is just a 3 peso ($1) cab ride away in Puerto Madero, the city's rejuvenated port district. Here, a series of converted waterfront warehouses enclose restaurants that can only be described as fabulous, serving the best beef in the world at thrilling prices. You'll particularly like Siga la Vaca (Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo 1714, 4315-6801), meaning "follow the cow"-to an all-you-can-eat, 20 peso ($6.67) buffet including drink and dessert.

Getting there and getting around

Flights

The country's official airline, Aerolineas Argentinas (800/333-0276, www.aerolineas.com.ar), flies only from Miami and New York, at round-trip rates starting at $455 and $480 respectively. For only slightly higher rates, American Airlines (800/433-7300, www.aa.com) offers flights on a daily basis to Argentina and better connections from most U.S. cities. For air-inclusive packages to B.A., Miami-based Analie Tours (800/811-6027, www.analietours.com) charges $545 for six nights at a four-star Recoleta hotel, with a gourmet lunch thrown in as well. They also offer inexpensive add-on trips to areas like Patagonia or Iguazu Falls.

Airport

To and from the international airport of Ezeiza, a cab is 30 to 40 pesos ($10 to $13.33). Or take the van service Manuel Tienda Leon (4314-3636, www.tiendaleon.com), which takes you to Plaza San Martin, where you board a bus for your specific hotel, all for 17 pesos ($5.67). Cheapest of all is the 1.35 peso (45¢) Number 86 Bus, which starts in La Boca and runs every 20 minutes along Avenida de Mayo before heading to the airport. Make sure the bus says Aeropuerto on it, and allow at least two hours for the ride.

Getting around in town

Most taxi rides average between 3 and 6 pesos ($1 to $2), even with your 10 percent tip. But not all cabbies are reputable, so use radio taxis, which your hotel or restaurant can call for you. The subway will run only .70 pesos (23¢) a ride.

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