BUENOS AIRES — "God lives among us everywhere on earth," a friend said over coffee at a sunny sidewalk cafe, adding with a smile, "but he has his office here in B.A."
Civic pride aside, the town called B.A. by resident portenos can hardly be faulted for its classic Old World beauty and resurging joie de vivre , the latter brought about by what seems a sincere tilt toward democracy three years ago.
Argentina has had more than its share of woes, from the tumultuous times of the Perons through more recent military dictatorships. Inflation and other economic ills have been steady and devastating. Yet Buenos Aires still manages to work her wiles on visitors with all the titillation of a tango. And the government is finally getting a handle on inflation.
Buenos Aires' appeal comes from broad avenues bordered with flowering trees and shrubs; a cosmopolitan mix of culture and the good life; a dogged reluctance to draw the shutters on one day until the sun has risen on another.
Stroll beneath lavender jacaranda and palo borracho trees. Then order an Argentine steak for dinner. And top off the evening listening to the lament of the tango in the colorful old San Telmo district.
Here to there: Aerolineas Argentinas, Pan Am and Avianca fly to Buenos Aires, Eastern, Varig and Empress Ecuatoriana with changes. Take airport bus to many hotels for $7.50, a taxi around $20. Get around town by bus or subway for 12 cents a ride, cabs moderate in cost.
How long/how much? Three days for the sights of Buenos Aires, another couple for day trips to a gaucho ranch and a cruise on the Parana River Delta. And don't miss an overnight at spectacular Iguacu Falls, higher than Niagara, 275 of them surrounded by primeval jungle. Argentina's exchange rate is favorable to us, making lodging and dining moderate to inexpensive.
A few fast facts: The country's new austral (replacing the peso) is valued at U.S. $1.10, but the "parallel" rate used extensively by local merchants is about 5% more favorable. Weather is moderate year-round. You'll need a visa (fast and free), departure tax of U.S. $10.
Getting settled in: Best hotel value we've seen in years is the elegant Lancaster (Av. Cordoba 405; $62 double), a small grand hotel in the continental tradition right at city center. Rooms are exquisite, public areas filled with antiques and gorgeous chandeliers, cozy American bar and formal tea-breakfast room, a favorite spot in BA for afternoon tea.
Gran Hotel Buenos Aires (Marcelo T. de Alvear 767; $50) is contemporary and comfortable, lush leather chairs in lobby, ferns and fireplace, modern rooms very pleasant.
Gran Hotel Dora (Calle Maipu 963; $38 B&B double) also has a convenient mid-city location. Small, breakfast tables in corner of lobby with view of attractive atrium, wood-paneled bar in another corner. Rooms small and utilitarian, good value.
Regional food and drink: The tempting aroma of barbecued beef wafts through every corner of town. You'll find at least one asado barbecue restaurant on every block, but also look for a place that turns out the delicious criollo native dishes, like carbonada , a stew made of meat, corn, dried apricots and raisins, potatoes and carrots.
Empanadas , originally from Spain's Galicia, are pastries stuffed with meat, vegetables, seafood or just about anything the cook wishes, delicious as a first course eaten by hand. Argentine chorizo is as strong and pungent as the Spanish sausage, served in the countryside as a choripan sandwich. Locro , a marvelous corn stew much favored, chimichurri a blazing hot sauce you splash on meat.
If you prefer fish over the succulent grass-fed cattle, try surubi , a fine white-fleshed variety. Argentine wine is excellent.
Moderate-cost dining: Best place to sample an asado is at one of the 25 or more asado restaurants lining La Costanera along La Plata River. Our choice was called the Happening, rustic and inexpensive like its neighbors, serving a fabulous parillada mixed grill of beef, pork, lamb, sausage, kidneys, sweetbreads and such. Spend all afternoon eating for about $8 per person.
El Repecho de San Telmo (Carlos Calvo 242) is an 1807 colonial home furnished in an eclectic Spanish-Victorian fashion. Superb dining on paella for $6.50, filet mignon for $5.50 and delicate trout for $5.
El Ceibal (Las Heras 2265) serves country food at unbelievably low prices: carbonada, locro and other staples at about $1.50, empanadas half a buck. One of the best meals we had, simple booths of wood, you'll be dining beside bankers or hod carriers as everyone loves this place.