Cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, South America’s highest-profile capital, has changed remarkably since its shaky start as a Spanish imperial backwater. Massive postindependence immigration turned a once cozy “Gran Aldea” (Great Village) into the first Latin American city with a million inhabitants; prosperity made it a “Paris of the South” with broad avenues, colossal monuments, and mansard-capped mansions.
Foreigners often conflate Buenos Aires with Argentina—even as provincial Argentines vociferously protest, “Buenos Aires is not Argentina.” Like New Yorkers, brash porteños (residents of the port) have a characteristic accent that sets them apart from the provinces. Many still identify strongly with their own Gran Aldea barrios. In fact, residents of the city’s 47 barrios might even protest that their own neighborhoods are too closely identified with the national capital.
That’s because each “Baires” neighborhood has a distinctive personality. The compact, densely built “Microcentro” boasts the capital’s major shopping and theater districts, as well as its Wall Street in “La City.” Immediately south, in Monserrat, the Avenida de Mayo is the city’s civic axis, the site of spectacle and debacle in Argentina’s tumultuous 20th-century politics. Monserrat gives way to the cobbled colonial streets of San Telmo, with its tango bars and Plaza Dorrego flea market. Farther south, La Boca is a working-class outpost and a colorful artists’ colony known for the Caminito, its curving pedestrian mall.
Northern neighborhoods like Retiro and Recoleta are more elegant and even opulent—the most affluent Argentines elect to spend eternity at the Cementerio de la Recoleta, one of the world’s most exclusive graveyards. Beyond Recoleta, Palermo’s parks were the property of 19th-century despot Juan Manuel de Rosas, but much of the barrio has become a middle- to upper-middle-class area with some of the city’s finest dining and wildest nightlife. North of Palermo, woodsy Belgrano is a mostly residential area that sometimes fancies itself not just a suburb or separate city but a republic in its own right—and it was briefly Argentina’s capital.
When porteños tire of the city, there are plenty of nearby escapes. The closest are the intricate channels of the Paraná Delta, easily reached from the northern suburb of Tigre, itself a short train ride from the city. One highlight is the island of Martín García, a colonial fortress and onetime prison camp with historic architecture and nature trails.
Even in times of crisis, the River Plate’s megalopolis still has much to offer the urban explorer in a city that, as the cliché about New York says, never sleeps. Even during 2002’s political and economic meltdown, Travel + Leisure named it Latin America’s top tourist city. Still, it remains one of the most underrated destinations on an underrated continent.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition