Published on November 29th, 2011 | by Mark Chesnut
INTERVIEW: Michael Luongo on the Perfect Buenos Aires Travel Experience
In this exclusive interview, Michael shares his deep knowledge about the allure of Argentina’s capital.
You’ve been spending time in Buenos Aires — and writing about it — for several years. What originally attracted you to the destination, and what do you enjoy most about it now?
I began writing on Argentina before the big tourist boom and the peso crisis, back in 2000 as part of a backpacking and writing trip I was making spending a few months in South America. At the time, there were virtually no tourists in Buenos Aires – almost no one spoke English – and it was simply magical. People were amazingly welcoming in so many ways – and to top it all off – in one of the hotels I stayed at, there was a group of American tango teachers on tour, and they took me to all these secret, magical, tango milongas – real salons where locals danced the tango.
I still love the friendliness of Argentina, how even if you just have a quick question – where is such and such a place – someone will engage you in conversation, sometimes that leads to coffee, etc. I don’t always have the time I had on my earlier trips to indulge in all of this, but these interactions are really what makes a trip to Buenos Aires. There is also the lingering sense of what was and is lost – the sense of Argentina once being among the world’s wealthiest countries – and the architecture from a hundred years ago that still remains – and seems to not fit with the culture of today in some ways. This is another contrast, and the sense of melancholy that accompanies it, which I also find so compelling.
How has Buenos Aires evolved in the years since you’ve been writing about it?
It has indeed become more touristy, and there are many more ex-pats living there, particularly Americans and Brits. When I did the first Frommers Buenos Aires in 2004-2005, I described it as the new Prague, meaning so many young ex-pats were moving there because it was cheap, and also easy to indulge in artistic pursuits. This also created a fantastic energy and this subculture of ex-pats, which mixes with the creative and internationally thinking locals, and so this is exciting. The fact of the matter is English is also easier as a result of this. In fact, I use Spanish less and less each time I do the Frommer’s book. I was amazed for example at a hardware store in my building in the downtown. I did not expect that there in all places, where there is nothing touristy, that every worker spoke English. Granted, they were all young, but it was unexpected.
I also believe that Buenos Aires has become more pedestrian and tourist friendly over the years. Calle Florida and Calle Lavalle have been pedestrianized for years, but recently so has Calle Reconquista, which is famous for its mix of bars, particularly Irish ones, and other restaurants and this brought new life to the downtown. Suipacha has also been closed to traffic, and bicycle lanes were added there, as well as many other places. The Ecological Reserve, just off Puerto Madero, has become easier to use for jogging, bicycling, all kinds of activities, so you see the city become greener to a degree, even if traffic and air quality could use a lot more efforts! The explosion of places in Palermo Viejo – divided into Palermo Soho in its southern en d and Palermo Hollywood in its northern end, is really amazing too. In some ways, it might be too successful and you’re seeing cookie cutter places that mimic one another, from boutiques to hotels to restaurants, but it has become a very fashionable place, where the creative energy of the city is most present.
Argentina has gone through some interesting and challenging times over the decades. How would you describe the current situation in terms of how it affects travelers?
Buenos Aires right after the peso crisis was a bargain, but that is just not the case anymore. I think it was around 2007 when you saw prices really go back up, and some hotel prices are shockingly high. Restaurants remain relatively good in terms of pricing, but really few bargains. Overall however, all things considered, you’re still better off economically in Argentina as a travel destination than much of North America, and Europe especially.
I think a traveler who has not been there in many years would notice the explosion of tango venues of all forms of variety and quality, the tango on the streets everywhere – and the expansion of urban markets throughout the city, from San Telmo to Plaza Francia in front of Recoleta Cemetery and so many others.
There are also so many more boutique hotels, again, of varying quality and services, and throughout almost every neighborhood. It’s become a more liberal city and country – most famously the passing of the same-sex marriage law, the first nationally in all of Latin America and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner herself considered that a beacon for other countries, including our own, which has yet to pass such a law.
I think the city is cleaner and safer in certain areas – though some people will dispute this who live there – you see more lighting, gentrification and other development particularly in Monserrat which was a sort of dead area between downtown and historic San Telmo. Development is pushing into new areas, like Barracas, which also borders San Telmo and La Boca. It’s a combination of gentrification by locals, foreigners buying in the city, and I think, urban improvements throughout various zones. You have seen this of course for the past 15-20 years in Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood. I just wish they would do something about fixing more of the sidewalks and enforcing the rumored pooper-scooper law which I have heard exists!
What are a couple of the lesser-known aspects of Buenos Aires do you address in your book, that perhaps most travelers don’t know about the city?
One of the most surprising things – and I have never met an Argentine who knew this – it was pointed out to me by a Brit who has lived there for more than 30 years – is that the 1580 second, though technically the third, founding of the city had a woman, Ana Diaz, on the boat. Her land grant was where the Burger King at Calle Florida and Avenida Corrientes now stands, and there is a plaque about her on the outside wall. Who knows if without a woman around we’d actually have a Buenos Aires.
I [also] write a lot about the animals in Buenos Aires – from the special saved elephant in the zoo which was rescued from abuse in a circus, to the cats in Recoleta Cemetery. What was important to me in doing the book over the years was how do you engage children in an atmosphere that maybe appeals more to adults. So in the case of Recoleta Cemetery – where Evita was buried – you have this fabulous architecture and intense history – and all these cats that local wealthy ladies come and feed and take care of twice a day. It makes the place fun for kids and adult animal lovers.
There is also I think — in looking at the grandeur of what was in Buenos Aires, in terms of its almost imperial sensibility in its architecture, especially downtown and along Avenida de Mayo, or on Avenida Callao — the notion that the United States was not the only important power a hundred years ago in the Western hemisphere, and Argentina, and Brazil, were once very wealthy and powerful. I point this out also in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Everyone wants to look at the European art there, but it is the Argentine art that tells the history of the country, from gauchos, to paintings of the Italian immigrants, to the vast panoramas of the Pampas painted as propaganda in the late 1800’s during the horrific wars where unfortunately many natives were slaughtered. It’s also interesting to look at paintings from the time period when Buenos Aires was almost a black majority city in the mid-1800’s. All of this history seems lost in many other touristic accounts of the city. And so I like to have that come alive for my readers, the history behind the experiences of today.
You live in Buenos Aires for extended periods of time on a regular basis. How would you describe a “perfect” day for you personally when you’re living in BA?
One of my absolutely favorite things to do in Buenos Aires is to wander the Avenida Libertador park system. Buenos Aires does not have a Central Park, or a Hyde Park. Instead, it has this linear and elaborate miles long park system strewn along Avenida Libertador stretching from the downtown through Palermo and Recoleta. It’s full of parks, statues, the Zoo, museums, embassies, including our own and the UK’s just off of it, and so many other beautiful things. It’s largely from the turn of the last century and reflects this Beaux-Arts, Belle Epoque, City Beautiful mentality, when French style was at its height. In good weather, people play soccer, read books, lounge, fall in love, suntan, skateboard. I could spend hours watching people.
I love also to get an ice cream, a gelado, whether a gelato or an ice pop as I walk around. It’s easy to also just talk to people. Nine times out of ten, there is also some kind of protest – and I like to find out what it is about – whether it is unions, students, something ethnic, and photograph it and talk to those involved to see if it might be useful for a story or just to learn more socially and economically about the country, but I don’t always recommend that for tourists.
If I can catch something cultural – and, well, there is tons of that in Buenos Aires – I will [go to] a show at the Centro Cultural Recoleta, next to the cemetery, or a gallery where a friend is having an exhibit. I am always busy working, but if there is time, I go to dinner with someone, usually in Palermo Hollywood, try a new restaurant, maybe not necessarily steak, but something where the chef is engaged in a form of fusion, or there is an elaborate tasting menu. After that, maybe a local pre-bar, or resto bar. A particularly beautiful one is Milion in Barrio Norte, built into a mansion, and you can have dinner there too, but it’s the bar that makes the place.
I also love to go to see tango, in a real milonga, or tango salon. I cannot tango – I have learned God did not put me on this earth for that purpose – but I am a night owl – remember Buenos Aires is a city for insomniacs, and many of my friends tango. I love to watch, photograph, talk to tangueros and tangueras, and the music takes you back to another era. I think for tourists, I would recommend Salon Canning. It’s authentic, but large enough that you won’t be self-conscious if you don’t know anyone or don’t know tango. At one point I used to live near there and loved coming home at 5 or 6 in the morning after being out and seeing tango friends. If you have a perfect day in Buenos Aires, remember it’s going to become a perfect night too!
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