The economic roller coaster that Argentina’s been riding in recent years has a silver lining:  It may at this moment be the only civilized place on the planet where the American tourist dollar still has big clout.

La Recoleta rental apartment

La Recoleta rental apartment

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.  A taxi ride from the airport that would cost just well over US$50 anywhere else weighs in at well under US$35.  My first evening’s dinner – which includes a boneless steak the size of a New York strip on steroids and two glasses of the priciest Malbec on the menu, comes in at just about the same price.

La Recoleta apartment rental

La Recoleta rental apartment

My pied-a-terre – a neat little apartment in the chic Recoleta neighborhood with full kitchen, loft, wi-fi, cable, local phone, and night doorman – runs barelymore than US$100/day.  None of this would raise an eyebrow for any third-world tourist destination, but I am quickly finding that Argentina delivers a remarkably European experience at banana republic prices.

The embarrassment part comes from noting on the ride into town that – notwithstanding the absence of street people or other obvious signs of hunger or unemployment – there appears to have been almost no new construction here in a good 20 years, and the exteriors of too many buildings look like they’re 4 or 5 years behind on their last coat of paint.  While things here don’t even remotely resemble the backward slide of depressingly faded Odessa in the former USSR and look a hell of a lot better than metropolitan Detroit, it’s also clear that the economy has been in an extended stall.  Perhaps the real silver lining is that B.A. is clearly inhabited by people who have clung tenaciously to a joie de vivre and sense of style despite all obstacles.

The airport taxi whizzes along a thoroughly modern autopista amid only moderate traffic to deliver me downtown in little more than 20 minutes, but it takes nearly twice as long to travel the final 5 miles through congested downtown traffic that made rush hour on 5th Avenue look like an orderly evacuation.

Along the way we pass subway stations of the several lines that criss-cross the capital, beautiful parks and classic monuments, and the distinctively Latin American incongruity of a Pierre Cardin storefront abutting a staircase door leading up to the headquarters of the local Communist Party.

We also pass through the intersection of the Avenida Juan Peron, leading me to reflect on the seeming paradox of Continental cultures now considered bulwarks of democracy and civil society that have also bred some of the 20th century’s most heinous dictatorships.  Peron was actually quite tame compared to the cabal of generals who followed him at the decade’s end to create tens of thousands of the Disappeared.  It took the French the better part of the century following their Revolution to get democracy right, and it took the Americans to seed it firmly in Germany, Japan, and Italy.  Is it culturally insensitive to observe that democracy seems in its most successful incarnations always to have in its DNA a sturdy Anglo-Saxon thread?

The La Recoleta neighborhood lies not far from  B.A.’s Microcentro” ground zero, and it is one of those glorious old Belle Époque era neighborhoods that retains its sense of elegance and charm, a grand dame weathered at some intersections a bit by the passage of time but nonetheless still a very classy lady.   It reminds me instantly of Paris’s Montparnasse, the upper end of Barcelona’s La Rambla, or Rome’s Via Veneto.

I’ve always had a disdain for chain hotels that keep foreign visitors tethered to a sort of Epcot Center experience.   Beginning with a visit to Paris almost a decade ago I quit staying even at quaint boutique hotels and instead rented for the first time a small apartment. It was gloriously situated just a block off the intersection of St. Germain and the Boul Mich, and I’ve been hooked on the foreign apartment rental experience ever since.

This time I reach out to the folks at Buenos Aires Habitat (found them through TripAdvisor) and I couldn’t recommend them more highly.  Tomas – who recently completed his PhD in tourism and who speaks impeccable English – greets me upon arrival and walks me through every detail of the apartment and the surrounding neighborhood with the care of a good friend lending me the keys to his place for a long weekend.  Delfina – whom I’ve met only via email but talk with by phone shortly after my arrival – guides me here from the States with the presence of an air traffic controller talking a pilot down for an emergency landing.  Her associate Eugenie makes complete arrangements for a side trip to the Mendoza wine country later in my stay and drops by to personally confirm arrangements.  Tickets and drivers to/from each site and transportation hub are all arranged.  It’s pretty much like the very best concierge service… except delivered as a house call.

I have to confess that I cheated my effort to switch fully over to local time on the first day and instead grabbed a short nap late in the afternoon.  Eugenie had recommended a bistro only two blocks away for a light meal and her intuition was yet again perfectly on target.

The restaurant Liber strikes me instantly as one of those perennial local favorites which seems to have an offering appropriate for every time of day and every occasion; I shortly learn from my waiter that it is open 24/7.  Tables between sidewalk and curb are covered end to end by the structure’s overhang to create a sort of outdoor dining gallery where all tables are empty as I enter around 9 thinking that a slight evening chill has driven everyone inside.  The place is bright, but the light is warm and inviting as the dark and well-worn paneled bar and cabinets.  The floor is a pattern in fitted stone broken unobtrusively by colored tile designs.

I pick out a corner table well-positioned for people-watching and I am not disappointed.  I am upon entering one of three lone diners later joined by another, the lot of us spread across 20 years or more in age.  By evening’s end one leavest accompanied by a woman with whom he has clearly scheduled a rendezvous and the other finishes reading a stack of the day’s papers.  The remaining tables are occupied by mix of couples, a girls-night-out trio of middle-aged  ladies, and mixed companies of friends.  It’s clear that this place has its regulars.  By the time my meal winds down, the patio begins to fill up – also with apparent regulars – in the Spanish tradition of late night dining; apparently only this lone Yanqui feels any chill in the air.

I’ve already recounted early on a bill of fare that ends with perfectly brewed cappuccino, but the account would not be complete without mention of an eye-popping display of elegant, freshly-baked pastries ranging from delicate petit-fours – served gratis with after-dinner coffee – to  elegant cakes.  It may be the first time I’ve been able to resist such a mother-load of carbs and I feel on the morning after somehow cheated by my restraint.

Tomorrow I’m posting a walk through historical sites titled Links to a Buenos Aires past