TAXI fares are a good barometer to the economy of any country. High fares generally mean a booming economy, low fares can indicate a recession.
In that regard, Argentina is the place to go if you want to get value for your euro. Following the collapse of the peso in December 2001, it is now equal to one-third of a dollar, with four pesos to the euro.
I discovered the truth of this on my first day in Buenos Aires. Out for a stroll, I took a wrong turn, got lost, and ended up 15 blocks from my hotel. Hailing one of the seemingly ever present black and gold taxis, I was whisked back to my hotel for a fare of less than six pesos,
You wouldn’t even get in the door of a taxi in most cities for that amount, but in BA the taxi is the favourite mode of transport for tourists. Of course if you want to be a bit more adventurous – and penny-pinching – you can take the subway, where a single journey on any one of its five lines costs as little as 70 centavos, or travel by bus or train, which likewise cost a pittance.
For instance, I took a one and a quarter hour train journey out to the greater BA area and it cost one peso 15 centavos, less than 50 cent. The train, with its metal seats, wasn’t the most comfortable, but it left on time and it got me where I wanted to go.
It also introduced me to another side of life in this vast country. Unlike in Europe where trains are used extensively by all classes and there is plenty of banter to be heard, the people on this train appeared to be the working class poor and they sat quietly throughout the journey. The only life within the carriage came from the constant stream of vendors selling bread, sweets, papers, cigarettes, toothpaste and toothbrushes – whatever they could put their hands on it seemed.
All of this contrasted with the bright, bustling city I had left behind for the day. Buenos Aires is regarded as the Paris of South America – and with good reason. “Dios esta en todas partes, pero attende en Buenos Aires,” is the local saying – God is everywhere, but He lives in Buenos Aires.
The city’s name offers you a clue, for it means good, or healthy, airs, and the drive into the city from the airport lends its support. Instead of mere streets you travel along majestic tree-lined avenues and many are of an impressive length. The Avenida del Libertador, for instance, which goes from the north to the south of the city, is 37k – and it isn’t the longest.
Most impressive of all is Avenida 9 de Julio, the O’Connell Street of BA, the administrative and commercial centre of the city. It consists of an 18-lane motorway, with a central reservation as wide again.
The great landmark on this street is the Obelisco, built in 1936 to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Buenos Aires. It is also the scene of all great celebrations, sporting, political, etc. A church dedicated to St Nicholas of Bari was demolished to make way for the monument, and a whole row of houses either side were also demolished to construct the highway.
Within the area around the obelisk, and all in walking distance, are the finest array of shops, restaurants, cafes, theatres and cinemas that any traveller could hope to visit. And with the peso at an all time low, there is unbelievable value to be had for the visitor from the eurozone.
A first class meal with a bottle of wine costs between 15 and 20 euro even in the best restaurants. If you are a steak eater, you will be in seventh heaven, for Argentina prides itself on its steaks and serves them up big and tender.
For snacks head to one of the many cafe bars, which are reminiscent of their Italian equivalent, with coffee and spirits sharing space with a magnificent range of pastries, paninis and sandwiches, all at very reasonable prices.
Lovers of sea food, Italian, Indian and other ethnic dishes are also well served. My personal preference was for Italian, and I enjoyed a dinner in a dockside restaurant which was as good as any I have had in Italy.
For shopping value, leather is worth targetting, whether it is a leather jacket, shoes or bags. The cashmere sweater is another item which is produced locally and so has plummetted in price. Expect to pay in the region of 25-30 euro. Incidentally, the shops are open from 10 am to 8 pm, with no break for a siesta.
If you prefer shopping of the bargain variety, there a number of markets to visit, including one in San Telmo, which is held every Sunday. BA also scores in the matter of antiques. While good class antiques are hard to come by in Ireland, there is a lively trade in BA. The hit taken by families following the December 2001 devaluation, I’m told, forced many treasured items on to the market.
When it comes to seeing the sights of BA, there are so many that it would take you months to get round them all, but there are some which shouldn’t be missed.
For instance, who can think of Argentina without thinking of Evita? Well, Eva Peron died in 1952 at the age of 33, and a visit to her grave – Number 57 in the Recoleta cemetery – is a sort of pilgrimage for all fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical.
She is buried in the Duarte family mausoleum, which is not very distinctive compared to the mausoleums of the rich and famous all around, but you will probably find yourself in a queue of tourists all waiting to pay their tribute to someone they only know through music and film.
Also of interest to the Irish tourist is the mausoleum to Admiral Guillermo Brown, born in Foxford, Co Mayo on June 22, 1777. He is regarded as the founder of the Argentine Navy because he formed a navy squadron to fight the Spanish in the war for independence.
La Boca is a poor dockside area, from which Diego Maradona emerged to become the best footballer in the world during the 1980s. A tour of the Boca Juniors stadium, known as the Bombaniero (the candy box), where he first made his name, costs a mere six pesos.
Also in this district is the Caminito (the little road), which is a popular spot for artists and tango performers. The tango dancers, usually two slender, good looking young people, curl their bodies provocatively round each other in the time honoured fashion at street corners and plazas, posing for tourists in return for a peso or two.
More daring are the jugglers and acrobats I saw putting on a show in front of lines of cars stopped at traffic lights on the Avenida 9 de Julio. They timed their performance to allow for a brief collection before the traffic zoomed on its way.
And if you want to see a Riverdance type of tango show, then head for Esquina Carlos Gardel in the old markets area off Avenida Lavelle. Instead of the traditional slow tango, you will see a fast-moving display of dazzling dancing in the tango style played to a jazzed up version of tango music. Dinner is served also for a cost of 130 pesos (approx 33 euro).
Like Riverdance, it is a classy show. The only reservation I had was with the venue, a converted cinema. The audience, seated at long dining tables, was packed in, causing me to wonder how the theatre had passed the safety regulations. In the event of a fire, there would have been a disaster. Such thoughts weren’t out of place either, as a disco fire in BA at the end of December had resulted in over 200 deaths.
Worth a visit is the Cathedral Metropolitana in Plaza de Mayo, a plaza associated with a lot of BA’s history. The Cathedral, built between 1752 and 1852, has a main nave with a nave on each side. On the right nave there is a memorial containing the remains of General San Martin, the nation’s liberator. On duty is a guard of honour, which is changed each day at 11 am.
Plaza de Mayo was the venue for the first step to independence in 1810, it was also the scene of the public swearing in of the 1860 constitution, and it saw the popular outbreak of Peronism in 1945. The Palace of the Governor, painted pink, and Government House are located here, and it is still a meeting place for the mothers of the ‘disappeared’, those who went missing during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.
The Teatro Colon, near the obelisk on Avenida 9 de Julio, should also be visited. This is the world’s largest opera house (seating 2,500) and hosted the greats, from Caruso and Callas to Pavarotti. One-hour guided tours are available daily between 11 am and 4pm for seven pesos (less than two euro).
Wherever you go on the north side of BA, you won’t be far from one of the city’s lovely parks, for this is the posh side of the city. The Botanical Gardens and the Zoo are in this area, but one of the nicest parks is Parque 3 de Febrero, which was designed by Frenchman Carlos Thays at the start of the 20th century. This oasis of greenery, flowers and lakes is home to joggers, walkers and a host of monuments to one famous politician or another. In fact, monuments are a regular feature wherever you go in BA.
The old Palermo district on the northside is the home of the wealthy. It is known as the diplomatic quarter because of the proliferation of embassies and consular missions featured in the fine old mansions. An apartment here rents for 1800 dollars a month (5400 pesos), and when you consider that a good wage is considered 800 pesos a month, it shows that some people are still cleaning up.
A visit to the racetrack in Palermo was an eye-opener. Admission was free for the ladies, there was a 15-race card (as distinct from a normal six-race card here), and most of the ladies disappeared during the races. Where to? Underneath the stand was a massive casino with row upon row of slot machines – and that is where the ladies spent their time, while their menfolk attempted to make sense of the formbook.
If you want to get a quick snapshot of the best places to visit on your trip to BA, then take one of the three-hour city tours. At 25 pesos, or less than nine euro, they are a gift.
A helpful sign to watch out for on any street in the city centre is that of Locutorio. Here you will find the key to cheap phone calls home and access to the internet. Emails cost as little as 35 centavos.
Another big help to anyone visiting Buenos Aires for the first time, and not familiar with Spanish, are the guide books published by the Clarin newspaper. Beautifully illustrated and full of interesting itineraries, they cost 15 pesos. The books on BA’s Historical Centre and The Neighbourhoods are a must for any traveller.
The only drawback to this visit is the length of time it takes to get there. I flew to Madrid and took a Jumbo from there. Before that, the nearest I had been to a Jumbo was on the tee of the seventh hole in Forrest Little Golf Club, so it was a new experience and not all together pleasant. On the plus side was the fact that the flight was through the night, so you don’t lose a day of your holiday. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sleep, and watching the same film three times is not my idea of fun. Next time I’ll be sure to pack a sleeping tablet.
Getting there: Killester Travel flew me there via Iberia. They organise golfing trips to Buenos Aires. They are at 169 Howth Road, Dublin 3 (01 8336935; fax 01 8330476; email: the email@example.com; www.killestertravel.com.