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It's buy, buy Buenos Aires

In the Argentine capital, a reluctant shopper is swept up by the glorious bargains, the need to look stylish and the unusual places to browse.

June 17, 2007|Andrew Bender | Special to The Times

Buenos Aires — NOT only am I not a shopper, I am so not a shopper. But on my recent trip to Buenos Aires, it just made so much sense.

There were three main draws: first, price. I quickly realized that I would lose money by not shopping here, what with trendy suede sneakers for $20, dress shirts and casual pants for less than $25 and antiques, housewares and fashions by young local designers for a fraction of what they would be stateside.

Chalk it up to the exchange rate. The Argentine peso used to be pegged one to one with the U.S. dollar, but the peso dropped after Argentina's economic collapse of 2001. Although the peso has risen (about 3 pesos to the dollar compared with 4), local prices have stayed constant, meaning that Buenos Aires remains a value for Americans.

Meals in Argentina's signature parrilla (grill) restaurants top out at about $9, including wine. Artful, midrange hotels run around $80 per night, a taxi across town costs about $4, and the subway costs about 23 cents a ride.

Second, Argentines dress to the nines. Wear shorts and sneakers and you're sure to look, well, ridiculous. So, I had to get busy.

Third, Buenos Aires has unique ways to shop. I quickly grew weary of the better-known shopping districts. The pedestrian street Calle Florida was a jostling experience with tourists being given handbills every few steps. Nearby, I loved the Beaux Arts design, handsome murals and high-end clientele of the Galerias Pacifico mall, but I was less enthusiastic about the number of boutiques you could just as easily find in any big U.S. city or even at the outlet mall in Cabazon: Christian Dior, Cacharel, Levi's, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, Sony and Timberland among them.

Instead, I focused on three neighborhoods that offered a bit of local culture along with the shopping: a giant street market, a stylish design center and bars that were transformed into bazaars during the day. Go on a Sunday to see them all in full swing.

The result: Buenos Aires turned out to be something like a museum with benefits, and my shopping friends found it irresistible.

San Telmo

San Telmo calls itself the birthplace of Buenos Aires and remains its most prepossessing neighborhood; squint and you might think you're in Rome. Many of the grand buildings began as aristocratic homes during Argentina's colonial period, but a late 19th century yellow fever epidemic led to an exodus, and San Telmo became largely tenement housing.

Many decades later, the area was rediscovered and became a hotbed of arts and antiques; tourist pamphlets list more than 500 merchants. The neighborhood booms on Sundays during the Feria de San Pedro Telmo street fair; the main street, Defensa, is closed to vehicles. Purveyors, peddlers and performers fill the squares, parks and cobblestone streets. Accordion and string music -- and somehow they've wheeled out a piano -- wafts through the air to the strains of Carlos Gardel, who is to tango what Elvis is to rock 'n' roll. You won't have to wander far to find an impromptu tango show.

The center of the street fair is Plaza Dorrego. Look for seltzer bottles of colored glass, porcelain urns, license plates, store signage and books, as well as more recent brass jugs and scales, stickers and toy cars.

San Telmo is worth a stop the rest of the week too. Galeria El Solar de French is an antiques mall on the site of the home of a decorated 19th century general. La Candelaria is a little warren of shops selling antique chandeliers and lampshades, posters and sewing machines, tableware and jewelry. Then there's the Guevara Gallery, which displays Deco furniture and lighting.

The Mercado San Telmo (established 1987) is stocked with bric-a-brac (trading cards, blankets, advertising signage, plus a produce market) but is atmospheric nonetheless, beneath a tall ceiling of aged wrought iron and corrugated tin.

Nearby, Balthazar is a men's clothing boutique so chichi that you have to ring a doorbell to enter (no bargains here).

Recoleta

Recoleta Cemetery is the city's only agreed-upon tourist attraction -- its Pere-Lachaise, its Petra, its pyramids -- final resting place of Argentina's elite, including presidents, generals, academics, Eva Peron and the father of tennis star Guillermo Vilas. If it's tasteless to call a cemetery dazzling, then I'm a heathen. Proportioned like a miniature village or an oversize train set, stately Greco-Roman crypts line narrow walkways. It's a maxim among portenos (as city residents are called) that it's less expensive to live your entire life in Buenos Aires than to be buried in Recoleta.

Nearly adjacent, Buenos Aires Design offers two levels of shopping in its Mall de Decoracion, showing off styles for use in this life: furniture and housewares from Argentina and abroad. Nothing here was particularly cheap, but the displays are often impressive and the goods unique.

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