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Buenos Aires vacation is an urban adventure

GANCHO:

To hook. When a tango dancer wraps a leg sharply around and in contact with the partner's leg by flexing the knee and releasing.

BUENOS AIRES — At the start of the seduction it happens. The stare. The fleeting touches. The quickening flutter of excitement. The wondering, will it end before beginning?

And then the man's arm gracefully reaches out, the palm upturned. He's waiting, waiting . . . waiting.

The music kicks in, the mournful piano notes twisting with violin strains.

She steps into his embrace.

I am the only one watching the crowd and not the tango dancers. Camera shutters whir and snap. Some people in the crowd hold smartphones aloft recording the moment to post on some social networking site as proof of their fantastic vacation.

February's late-summer humidity blankets Buenos Aires. I desperately need a handheld fan and a bottle of water to deter the 90-plus-degree heat.

But back to the dancers, whose fully clothed twisting bodies — he's in black, yes black, pants and long sleeves, she's in a full skirt with three-quarter sleeves — meld with the sad strains of the music that once symbolized Argentinian discontent. My gaze settles on his face and I watch the beads of sweat turn first into a solo trickle, then into rivers running down his face.

Like a needle skipping on a record, time stops and my perfect Argentine moment is lost.

The dancers still tango. The music still plays. But reality intercedes.

There is no stage or adoring audience. Just a dusty patch of concrete, tucked in between tables of Porteños hawking pieces of their history to eager tourists at the weekly antiques market in San Telmo's Plaza Dorrego.

This is the contradictory essence of Buenos Aires. Stunning art nouveau architecture hides under decades of grime or street-side graffiti or both. Fences surround national monuments in front of the Congresso to keep them from being defaced. At closing time, trash spills forth over Palermo's beautiful, tree-lined sidewalks in front of closed markets, causing walkers to dodge limp heads of lettuce and past-their-prime apples.

Still, I am hooked.

CORTINA:

Curtain. A brief musical interlude between a set of dance music usually three to five songs at a milonga, a tango dance event.

My husband and I do not globe-trot. Our passports do not contain stamps from far-flung locales. A typical vacation requires packing up the car and returning to our familiar Midwestern roots.

But in 2004, we honeymooned in Paris. For a week we ate breakfast each morning in the Luxembourg Gardens, strolled along the Seine or through art museums and dined in quaint cafes.

When our plane taxied down the runway at Charles de Gaulle, we promised ourselves we would travel again.

Some people hoard books and papers, we hoard frequent-flier miles.

Once we had enough stashed away to go somewhere big, our final destination had to meet several criteria: It had to be far-flung enough that we could never afford the airfare without using frequent-flier miles. That eliminated most of Europe. It had to be a country where the dollar was still strong. Again, Europe was out, even with the continent's current economic woes. It had to have a wine-growing region.

When my husband, David, suggested Buenos Aires, the Paris of the South, we toasted our choice with a glass of malbec from Mendoza. And the planning began.

ENTRADA:

To make an entrance. In the tango, it occurs when a dancer steps forward or otherwise enters the space between a partner's legs without displacement.

The door clicks shut and I head back to the expanse of windows to greedily take in the view. Buenos Aires' city center spreads out before us, the high-rise buildings eventually giving way to the shimmering waters of the Rio de la Plata. Twenty hours ago, we anxiously awaited the first leg of our flight from Tampa, and now we have keys to the apartment that will be home base for our two-week vacation.

From 15 floors up, the blaring street noise — a medley of rumbling bus engines, screeching taxi brakes and aggressive car horn blasts — fades to a whisper. From 15 floors up, it's easy to forget that not only are we the cliched strangers in a strange land, but we are non-Spanish-speaking strangers.

And then there are the parting words of our landlord, "People think Buenos Aires is an exotic place. I don't understand why."

I chose not to answer him.

It is early on Day 1 and the options are endless: We can visit the dead at the Recoleta Cemetery, or take the behind-the-scenes tour at Teatro Colón, or pop in for an afternoon libation at the famous Café Tortoni. Instead, we stroll along the tourist-trap-friendly Calle Florida, a safe and easy introduction to the city.

Six hours later we are lost.

I duck into a McDonald's to use the bathroom while my husband stares at the map in our guide book again. Yes, a paper map. I can't think of the last time we had to consult a real map and not our smartphones for directions.

An hour and two more wrong turns later we bask in the icy air blowing from the AC unit in our Buenos Aires pied-a-terre. I institute two rules for the rest of the trip: Consult the map before we leave each morning, and if we get lost, find a Starbucks. They have free Wi-Fi.

ABRAZO:

The embrace; a hug; or dance position.

Minutes ago we stood in front of the Casa Rosada, Argentina's pink presidential palace where Eva Perón addressed her adoring masses. But I am not Argentine nor an Evita worshiper; still Madonna's voice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's words to Don't Cry for Me Argentina fill my head. I know my connecting Madonna with Evita would be blasphemous to the Argentinians who still wait in line to leave flowers at her tomb in the Recoleta Cemetery.

Now, we're joyriding on the subway, or subte.

"Where are we going?" my husband asks.

I look around the car. We sit on slatted wooden benches. From each of the car's smallish windows hangs a leather strap providing the means to open or close them. Dark wood frames the doors, which you also open yourself.

"Nowhere," I reply.

"We're riding through history," is what I long to say, but he will find that a ridiculous sentiment and tease me about it for the rest of the afternoon. I say nothing more and enjoy my moment on the beautifully restored, original subway cars. Buenos Aires' A Subway line dates to 1913. It was the first underground transportation system in Latin America. The original cars still traverse the tracks daily.

This is how our vacation plays out. I am the trip planner, guide-book reader, listmaker extraordinaire. My history-loving husband is the budget keeper, adding a quick dose of reality when our joint plans become too grandiose. With more than a week in the city, our trip doesn't have the frenetic pace that drove our time in Paris.

We sleep late. We meander through the city streets sometimes with no specific desire other than to enjoy the architecture that can be Parisian art nouveau on one block or American art deco and Greek neoclassical on the next. We check off sights on our list daily:

• The Recoleta Cemetery: Home to Evita's final resting place; many of the tombs contain small winding staircases to the subterranean levels where the older caskets are stored.

• The MALBA (home to Latin American modern art): Even the benches are functional works of art with the pieces of wood turning into individual tendrils that extend up and over the walls in the museum's atrium.

• The Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo: An 18th century restored French mansion that provides insight into life during the golden era of Buenos Aires' rise as one of the leading destinations for European immigrants.

• The behind-the-scenes tour at the Teatro Colón: The first two architects died untimely deaths at 44, leading many to believe the project cursed. The third architect, a Frenchman who agreed to take on the project, was already over 44. He survived.

We even manage a three-day respite from the city for a cross-country trek to Mendoza to drink wine amid the vineyards, the snow-capped Andes looming in the distance.

RESOLUCIÓN:

Tango close. An ending to a basic pattern similar to a half of a box step. 6, 7 and 8 of the 8-count basic.

I wake on the morning of our final day and feel panic, the kind that comes from worry that we missed out on that one must-see sight. I feel like I'm only starting to understand Buenos Aires and its crumbling sidewalks, svelte and friendly Porteños the locals — and pride in its boom-and-bust history. Despite the economic woes it suffered at the turn of the 21st century it feels like a country back on the brink of the boom.

Mentally, I tick off what I have learned and done:

I know that if I yearn to escape the workweek craziness of the city center, Palermo is just a subway ride away. There, I can window shop under a dense tree canopy, sate my appetite with some of the city's best and most unique restaurants, find English-speaking Porteños and relax in one of the many parks with nary a bus in sight.

At the grocery store, I know that the eggs are not refrigerated, that you weigh the produce before you get in the checkout line and that local beer can be cheaper than American soda.

I feel in love with San Telmo and its rainbow-hued murals, crammed antique stores and the historic plaques that litter every block: This famous person slept here, or that one wrote a book there, and this site was once a jail.

I have crossed large multilane streets — 11 lanes in Palermo! — that would have pedestrian overpasses in the States.

Now our bags are stowed and the car taking us to the airport turns on to Avenida 9 de Julio. City workers move metal barricades into place for the Carnaval parade later that evening. I'm sad to leave before the raucous party.

I turn around for one final glimpse of the obelisk and the Teatro Colón. It was a fantastic trip, but I have a feeling we won't be back.

The rest of the world beckons.

Jennifer DeCamp can be reached at jdecamp@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8881.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

How to get there

International flights arrive at Ezeiza International Airport (EZE), which is about a 30-minute cab ride from downtown Buenos Aires. Visas are not required to enter the country, but Americans need a valid passport and must pay an entrance fee of about $130 per person that is valid for 10 years. Arrange cab service to your destination inside the airport after going through customs. We used frequent-flier miles, but a check on travelocity.com shows tickets in October, which is spring there, are about $1,250.

Where to stay

Buenos Aires is divided into neighborhoods or barrios. The Recoleta, Palermo and Microcentro are good choices for accommodations. We rented a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of downtown through vrbo.com, which lists rental units in all the city's neighborhoods. Our apartment cost $70 a night (a steal) with a $200 security deposit and $40 cleaning fee. It had a kitchen and washer and dryer. This allowed us to save money by not having to eat out every meal and to do laundry a couple of times so we could bring fewer clothes. We chose Microcentro for convenience. We had a one-block walk to the nearest subway station and easy access to attractions like the Teatro Colón, and it was a five-minute cab ride to the Retiro bus station. On weekdays, it is loud and busy, because it's located in the heart of the business district. If you prefer quiet, tree-lined streets and a less urban feel, seek out a hotel or rental in

Palermo or Recoleta.

Getting Around

Buenos Aires is a large city, and the distance between the neighborhoods is too great to hoof it. The subway is a fast and cheap alternative (2.5 pesos per ride) but it doesn't connect to all neighborhoods, like the Recoleta. Radio Taxis are the next best alternative; look for the yellow and black cars that have Radio Taxi printed on them. Our most expensive ride was about $7. If you take a cab, give the driver the street then the address.

Dining notes

Five things about restaurant dining I wish I would have learned from guide books:

• There is no host to seat you. This is fabulous because you can sit wherever you want.

• Argentines are not carb-conscious like Americans, neither are they overweight, so a bread basket is standard fare at most restaurants. Certain places charge a small fee for it under table service. Don't skip it — the options can be gourmet and usually come with seasoned oils or butters. You'll walk it off, trust me.

• Waiters don't obsess about service. When you need help, look for your server. Usually eye contact and a nod work. They'll come right over.

• You pay for water. There are two options, "sin gas," or still water, and "gaseous," water with bubbles.

• Argentina is a cash-carrying society. Many smaller restaurants only take cash as payment.

Where to eat

Dadá (San Martín 941, Microcentro): Eclectic kitsch and funky art are the decor at this intimate cafe that's a favorite with locals. Tables are few and close. Meanwhile, your neighbors seem even closer when the cacophony of good cheer reaches a fever pitch and there's not an empty seat. Order the ojo de bife (ribeye steak) served with chimichurri.

Don Julio (Guatemala 4691, Palermo): Arrive early — that would be around 9 p.m. — and score one of the coveted sidewalk tables perfect for people- (and dog-) watching in the city's most lushly green neighborhood. Don Julio is a traditional Argentinian parrilla or steak house, so order the beef, which is local and served in plentiful portions. The staff is helpful and attentive.

El Cuartito (Talcahuano 937, Microcentro): This restaurant has been serving up cheesy pizza slices since 1934 . Get one of the flaky, stuffed empanadas as a starter. If you like lots and lots of onions, try the fugazetta, a traditional Buenos Aires deep-dish pizza oozing with mozzarella and onions.

Bar El Federal (Carlos Calvo 599, San Telmo): Café Tortoni (est. 1858) is the city's most well-known cafe bar — you'll frequently see tourists waiting for the doors to open — but El Federal (est. 1864) seems more like a local joint. It's a short walk from Plaza Dorrego, home of the Sunday antiques market in San Telmo, but far enough to escape the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that fill a mile-long stretch of Defensa, which is closed to car traffic. The hearty lomo completo bife sandwich is a burger with all the fixings, including a fried egg. Wash it down with Quilmes Stout, a local brew that tastes more like a rich, American porter.

La Baita (Thames 1603, Palermo): Fact: About 60 percent of Argentinians are descendants of Italian immigrants. Because of this, do not pass up the chance to have authentic Italian cuisine in Buenos Aires. At this family-owned restaurant, pick a dish featuring their home-style pasta and save room for dessert. A flaky pastry of phyllo layered with lightly sweetened cream and berries disappeared all too quickly.

La Fábrica del Taco (Gorriti 5062, Palermo): After feasting daily on empanadas (the Argentinian street food of the masses), we couldn't resist gorging on a plate of Mexican-style tacos served with margaritas. Each table features three bottles of hot sauce ranging in heat from "For Argentinians" (extremely mild) to "For Those Who Dare" (blazing hot). Try them all.

Where to shop

Argentina is known for its leather products, mate sets (used to drink a traditional tea made from yerba mate leaves) and wine.

Carla Danelli (Armenia 1902 or Honduras 4802, Palermo): Trendy leather handbags and shoes at modest prices made by one of the top leather producers in Argentina.

San Telmo antiques market (Sundays in Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo): Go for the people-watching — the streets are packed shoulder-to-shoulder with gawkers of all nationalities. Look for a crowd holding up cellphones — that's where the tango dancers perform. Yes, you can buy antiques, but most of the best bargains will cost too much money to ship home. For example, we found a chest painted in Tiffany blue with nine glass-front drawers that was marked at about $150. It would have been a steal until the shipping was factored into the price. Instead, most people purchase smaller items like gaucho knives with carved handles, colored glass soda bottles, house number plaques and retro phones or cameras. Artisans sell their work on the streets surrounding the market, as do many other people selling cheap, tourist-friendly goods.

Jennifer DeCamp

Buenos Aires vacation is an urban adventure 07/06/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 10:59pm]

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