BECAUSE the phrase ‘it takes two to tango’ is so commonly used in modern language, it would be easy to forget how difficult the tango is. Its movements are slow then dramatic, its chords drift between euphoric happiness and intense melancholy, and its dancers kick their legs about like untamed horses.
But it’s a dance that Buenos Aires does so well.
Wrapped in the romantic embrace of Eurocentric terms like ‘The Paris of South America’ or more extreme local ones like ‘Buenos Aires kills me’, the port city grips you with its distinct barrios and easy-going people between its green parks, grandiose avenues and graffitied classical statues.
It leads you, from the elegance of Plaza San Martin to a strangely pink presidential palace, before juicy steaks and wholesome Malbec wines leave you too full to dance, watching the professionals work their magic in whichever suburb you happen to end up in.
But not all is as it seems. You pass an intricate and striking baroque building guarded by palm trees, but upon entering you find it was made to house water tanks. In any other city it would be a landmark structure but here it’s just the Palace of Running Water.
We catch a taxi to the dressed-up suburb of Recoleta, home to the most bizarre cemetery I’ve ever seen — boutique real estate for the wealthy deceased, adorned with cypress trees and little mausoleums with façades reminiscent of trendy Armani stores. With a morbid curiosity we gape at these ostentatious structures, losing any inclination to tick the ‘I’ve seen the grave of Evita Peron’ off of any would-be to-do list.
This however will be the last reference to death in a story of a city so alive — a thriving atmosphere where the protests — generally peaceful — never seem to stop, but neither do the restaurants or the music. It’s a place where you’d be unlucky not to find a decent steakhouse and if you are lucky, you might get to hear the soulful voice of Carlos Gardel belting out tangos in that taxi ride, providing the perfect soundtrack to a beautifully imperfect place. Later on as my partner and I soak up the marrow of the trip over a strong black coffee she comments, ‘the city has a lot of rubbish, but you can forgive it for that’.
But while Buenos Aires will be assertive enough to guide you, you may not get to hear the tango in the taxi so go to a show just to make sure. There’s a company called Complejo Tango that runs a combined evening of dance classes with a show afterwards, encompassing the history of tango with adept dancers, live music and top quality bife de ternera steaks. Even if you’re flat-footed, vegetarian and don’t like tango, it’s an evening that could easily change at least one of these things.
But it’s not all about steak and tango — it can also be about steak and latin jazz. In the suburb of San Telmo we duck into the little restaurant of Bellissimo at the customary Argentinean dinner time of 10pm, greeted with a friendly ‘hola!’ by the band, with the piano, bass, lead guitar, conga drums and tenor sax busting out tunes like Girl from Ipanema and Summertime.
I order a delicious bife de chorizo, which is the staple steak in Argentina, along with provoleta – a grilled provolone cheese. I could easliy have ordered pizza or pasta, as Argentina has a very strong Italian influence which comes through in its food and personality.
Drifting between so many suburbs that are almost unique cities within a city, any description of Buenos Aires listing them one by one would be too structured and overstimulating, because when you’re there you feel like anything goes.
With humid weather that changes in an instant, every day feels like something brand new, a spectacle that you can’t predict. While it takes two to tango, Buenos Aires is already dancing, so what are you waiting for? Being flat-footed is no excuse.
*Matthew Ogg was a guest at the Marriott Plaza Hotel, Buenos Aires
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