El Caminto, for touristy Tango. :: A. F
It was almost ten in the evening when my taxi drew up against the kerb and stopped. The street lights created pools of light that spilled out over the pavement. There was no name outside on the street, just a house number by the elegant iron gates; but the taxi driver confirmed it was the right place. As I walked up the steps to the neoclassical house, the front door swung open and I was ushered inside. It was the start of a truly memorable evening in one of South America’s most dynamic and creative cities.
I’d been in Buenos Aires just a few days. At first, the city seemed overwhelming; it is vast, sprawling and intense. Reaching out from the shores of the broad Río de la Plata estuary the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires is without doubt one of South America’s megacities. Its own autonomous province, this port city is home to almost forty per cent of the nation’s population, known as ‘porteños’. Buenos Aires is divided into distinct ‘barrios’ or neighbourhoods, districts that have their own strong identities, almost like separate towns. The city has some 48 ‘barrios’ and I was advised by a local that one of the best ways to start to feel part of Buenos Aires is to immerse oneself within a few of these districts.
They say Buenos Aires is the Paris of the south and to get a flavour of this more romantic side of the capital, I visited the upscale neighbourhood of Recoleta. Here the architecture is extravagant, neoclassical in style, a clear reminder of the city’s strong European heritage with French, Spanish and very much Italian influences throughout the district. Here residents live in posh apartment buildings with elegant façades and ornate balconies. Along the broad avenues is where many of the classic 5-star hotels can be found, including the iconic Hotel Sofitel with its striking art deco style tower and the famous Alvear Palace Hotel.
For a more contemporary experience, the port side developments in Puerto Madero offer some of the city’s best restaurants and stylish hotels in renovated vintage red-brick dockside buildings or new, gleaming glass towers. From here I could see the impressive city skyline from one viewpoint and brilliant white cruise ships from another.
San Telmo by contrast has a more edgy feel; the buildings are covered in graffiti and the pavements are cracked and damaged. Yet is it here that there is a more genuine flavour of the city of Tango. During the weekends in San Telmo you’re more likely to see couples refining their passionate dance in the main neighbourhood square, ‘Plaza Dorrego’ or, if you want to get involved, try your luck in one of the Tango halls or bars. The truth is that although this sexually charged dance is probably the city’s most famous cultural export, once I arrived in Buenos Aires I felt that Tango had been hijacked by the tour agencies and tourist firms. There are no shortage of contrived Tango-themed dinner and dance shows to choose from, but it was harder to find an authentic experience.
For a ‘downtown’ experience, then head to the Microcentro. This is the heart of the city, where you will see the major city institutions, the iconic pink, ‘Casa Rosada’, the Government House, as well as the main theatres and galleries.
It’s the hub of the subterranean metro system too, the ‘subte’, so from here it is very easy to get around on the graffiti-covered trains. During my visit the district felt very politically charged - frequent, almost daily demonstrations marched noisily through the streets, water cannons sat ominously by the side of the road, and semi-permanent barricades were installed in front of the ‘Casa Rosada’.
For a more relaxed atmosphere I made it to the football neighbourhood of La Boca, home to the Boca Juniors stadium. Here you’ll find ‘El Caminito’, a touristy area since the 1950s and ‘60s that offers a slightly artificial, yet truly appealing notion of Buenos Aires as the city of the Tango. Ramshackle period houses, painted in vibrant colours, and decorated with street art, line the pedestrianised area. Ground floor restaurants open out onto the cobbled streets, offering classic Argentine fare, together with a modest dance show or live music.
Probably the most chic and definitely the most happening neighbourhood is the once bohemian quarter of Palermo. This large part of the city is divided into various trendy areas, including SoHo and the glamorously sounding Hollywood, so called as this sophisticated and on-trend neighbourhood is a hub of creative businesses and media companies. This district has some of the best cafés, tea houses, bars and restaurants in Buenos Aires. The colourful streets are also full of quirky independent boutiques, gourmet food stores, and inspirational interior designers.
It is here that I discovered ‘Home’, a fashionable, yet understated, award-winning, 20-room boutique hotel created by Brit record producer Tom Rixton and his wife Argentine PR director Patricia O’Shea. It combines the comforts of a beautiful home with the luxuries of a refined contemporary hotel.
In a city that is so enormous, overpowering and impersonal, ‘Home’ brings things back to a human scale, with an intimate and welcoming style. In addition to the bespoke designed guest rooms, there are four suites including the pool suite and garden suite, each with vintage furniture and stylish décor. The most magical place is the beautiful, secluded garden with heated pool, where you can take in the sun, relax at the bar, sit amongst the trees or at the end of the day dine on the terrace, under the star-filled sky.
Yet you won’t want to stay put for long - Palermo is the buzzing heart of the Buenos Aires food scene and nightlife. It was the reason I took a taxi to that mysterious, discreet address one evening and was left at the door of an unmarked house. This was one of many ‘puertas cerradas’ restaurants in Buenos Aires.
These so-called ‘closed door’ restaurants date back to the last financial crisis in Argentina, when accomplished chefs struggled to maintain the overheads of restaurants and new, emerging talent was unable to find work. They innovated by creating private dining experiences in their own homes. Each evening a different multiple course menu was created and typically paired with wines.
Over the last decade many of these closed-door, homespun dinner clubs have evolved into upscale eateries - really restaurants by all intents and purposes, but ones that only accept guests by reservation and only offer a set menu.
I had chosen ‘El Latino’, an exotic closed-door venue that combined Argentine cuisine with Latin American Colombian flavours, an eclectic menu as diverse and colourful as the neighbourhoods of this extraordinary city.