Hooray too for the first country to offer non-gender conforming passports and to make it easy to change sex on documents.
I have had a long love affair with Argentina generally, and its capital, Buenos Aires, more particularly. It is a city where time has slowed down. People are more polite than elsewhere, more old-fashioned. The architecture can be spectacular, ranging from the Parisian Hausmannian style to ultra-modernist. There are plenty of ugly things too, but in the main, the city oozes style and charm: Grand Boulevards, cafes, leafy streets.
The Argentines are also a rather easy-on-the-eye group of people, blended as they are from Italian, Spanish, English, and German stock—in that order of blending. Indeed, Buenos Aires is the largest Italian city in the world after Rome. This Italian influence is reflected in the food, the style, and the language—with many words in Italian, including everybody saying Ciao to each other.
What’s a visitor to do? Well, there are certainly plenty of touristic things to do, and any decent hotel concierge will help in that regard—restaurants, tango shows, museums, festivals and markets. What is it famous for? Well, certainly beef—considered by many the best steak in the world. And certainly a grilling culture that is rivalled only by neighbours Uruguay and Brazil. There is also wine, the famous Malbec. Originally a blending grape from Bordeaux of little importance, this grape has found excellence on Argentine soil, particularly at altitude, and produces some of the most delicious and celebrated wines in the world.
And you know what else? It seems like over half of the police officers are women, at least the neighbourhood beat cops. I sure do love a woman in uniform. And here, they also carry clubs. What fun!
Argentina is a very macho country in style. They celebrate a cowboy masculinity, and many women are very feminine and elegant. Argentina was also the first country in the world to recognise transgender rights, the first country to offer a separate gender option in their passports for trans people and have made it a simple administrative procedure to change gender. These enlightened policies come on the heels of very socially woke policies on gay and lesbian rights, making Buenos Aires one of the gay capitals of South America if not the world. Not surprisingly, I found myself dressing for a tolerant society.
I asked one of my taxi drivers as well as an elegant woman who enlisted my help in choosing some earrings for herself how it was possible that such a Catholic and fundamentally conservative society could have such progressive social policies so as to recognise transgender rights before the rest of the world.
“Political cynicism,” dead-panned the taxi driver. “They’re just buying votes. They don’t care if you’re gay, trans, they just want your vote. The make some noise to capture these minority groups. They don’t really believe it.” The woman in the shop had to agree.
What else? Well, I did notice that people really looked at me, much more than in the US. There was a much broader range of emotion on their faces—some smiles, no hostility, perhaps some incredulity—after all it is a conservative place. But I never felt harassed or unsafe. One man said out loud to me, in Spanish, “hey man, dressed like that, you look like a lady,” he didn’t mean it as a compliment, rather I think he was trying to impart information to me, but I took it as a compliment.
What did I buy?
I bought a beautiful small handbag. I bought a few shoulder scarves, because I get cold and because they make it okay for me to wear a dress or other top that has open shoulders. I bought a cute little leather jacket and the slinkiest black silk embroidered top—something to go dancing in. I’m going dancing with a friend, and I want to look good when I do. And boy, do they dance here. [As an aside, dancing seems to be coming up for me in all kinds of different areas of my life as an important step in my journey—for health and wellness, flexibility and strength, grace and poise, but also for emotional release. Let’s dance!].
A favourite new hotel
I’ve been staying at a new hotel for me, the Club Frances on Rodriguez Peña in the Recoleta neighbourhood. Great location. It is just around the corner from one of my favourite hotels of all time, the Alvear. I had the joy of “living” in the Alvear for several months for work quite some time ago—I think that you go from “staying” to “living” when it comes to hotels after you have passed 10 days. I had initially planned to go back, but at $1,000 per night as the starting price, I decided to look elsewhere, and lo and behold found this place. Old style, small with about 40 rooms, it is great value for money. I have a glorious room bathed in light on one of the upper floors, a suite, and it is a mere $250 per night. I will be coming back here again to stay sometime soon.
Plus, the very attractive receptionists that work here have been very complimentary and flirtatious about my outfits. Customer for life!
Things to buy
Of course there are the usual things—leather goods, knives, riding boots, saddles, blankets, maté cups and straws…but you don’t need me for that. One day I will give a good rundown on the best places for that stuff. This time, however, I was really interested in women’s fashion. Fun, edgy, young stuff.
There are so many shops that it would be impossible to nail them all, but if all you do is head over to the chic neighbourhood of Palermo Soho and just walk all the streets you will find some amazing stuff. One of the best things about Argentina is that the international chains are almost really not here. You do find a few Starbucks around—gag—but you also find an incredible selection of local coffee shops that actually make good coffee unlike their American competitor. And this especially applies to clothing and accessories shops and in particular the Palermo Soho neighbourhood.
Bikinis (and tons of shop make them custom to you), beach kimonos, sunglasses, leather jackets, fashions of all kinds from torn jeans to wedding dresses, but all with a bit of an edge, is what you will find roaming the streets of Palermo Soho. What a day it is to shop there. And there are literally hundreds of places to eat and which cater to all tastes. You can’t go wrong in the area. And at night, the place becomes a hotbed of bar-hopping and clubbing. Really quite fun.
What I loved to see was how many trans people were out and about just being alive. It is a delight to see my sisters in circulation. Ah, to be 20 and trans!
It was also a delight to shop here. Not a single shopkeeper was anything other than extremely solicitous towards me, helping me pick things out, try things on, adjusting, adding accessories…it was absolutely wonderful. And no, the sales girls are not paid on commission. It was really flattering to be told that I was very fashionable by so many people.
Of course I’ve talked about the Palermo Soho area and women’s fashion and home décor in particular, but Buenos Aires is also home to the best men’s shoes I have ever had the pleasure of wearing. Back in the peso crisis of the early 2000’s, I bought about 8 paris of men’s dress shoes for work. I have worn them continually since, have had them resoled a few times, but they look as good as new. Not any other shoe that I have ever bought has come close…Ferragamo, Lobb, Trickers, Allen Edmonds, Church’s have ever lasted like these. Lopez Taibo, in Recoleta just across the street from the Alvear Palace, makes the best men’s shoes in the world. Sadly, they no longer do what they did when I worked here so long ago, which was to make a last of your foot and keep the moulds so that they could make your shoes personally, but hey, few people still do. If you are after a pair of comfortable loafers, the other shoe-making institution more in the old Gucci style is Guido, just around the corner.
Places and things to Eat
There are so many places to choose from, and these mentions are only made because they are such standouts in their own ways. In truth, I was not so adventurous on this trip as I usually am. For some reason I had this craving for “toasts”. If you grew up in South America at all you might know what I mean. These toasted tramezzini in the Italian tradition, thick slices of white bread with ham and cheese, toasted brown, dripping with melted cheese, cut into triangles, and nice and toasty. They rank right up there with chicken soup as comfort food.
Another staple is the chori-pan—a bullet shaped stubby baguette filled with chorizo or some other sausage or meat. These are the worker’s sandwich. Indeed, at El Obrero, in addition to a lovely steak, you can have one of the best chori-pans in Buenos Aires.
There are two steak houses that have served as absolute stalwarts for me…and though many others have been given greater or equal billing, for my taste, these two are hands down the best.
La Cabrera is on the edge of the Palermo Soho neighborhood and has two locations about 50 feet from each other. The little venue on the street corner is the way to go (only open for dinner at this time—whereas the other location just down the street is open for both lunch and dinner). It is a charming and cozy space, the steak is exceptional, but so too are all the sauces, and sides that come with it. A good steak is largely a given from one place to the next, largely, but these are as good as any, but the whole package—especially the sauces, the bread, the setting, and the amazing grilled sausage and grilled provoleta cheese, are just hands down better altogether than everyone else’s. Washed down with a nice bottle of malbec from their excellent wine list and you will be in beef heaven.
La Brigada is in the San Telmo neighbourhood, also just on the edge, and opposite a lively covered market. On a Sunday, after a stroll through the San Telmo antiques market, La Brigada is an excellent stop. They are a bit football-mad in their choice of décor, but the place is an. Institution, and it is the best place to have my absolute favourite steak cut, entraña. This is the diaphragm muscle that in France is known as the “butcher’s cut” because it is considered too special to sell. It is a tougher cut, but it is quite possibly the most flavourful one on the animal.
El Cuartito is considered by locals to be the best pizza in Buenos Aires. It is not recognisable to someone who is used to eating pizza in Italy. It is thick crust, and positively dripping with cheese. Two slices were a full meal for me. But there is a line that is almost constant out the door, and even though different, the pizzas are very good. The crust is thick and almost a bit crunchy, the cheese is really stretchy and delicious, and the tomato sauce is particularly tart and delicious. Every table has garlic salt, oregano, and hot peppers to put on them, so that is a nice touch. The place is also insanely inexpensive, and the house Malbec wine is good and served chilled, the way I like it. Definitely worth a visit, especially if, like me, you can’t be away from pizza too long.
El Sanjuanino. I’ve been coming to this institution for empanadas since I was little. This place is still here because they are still just as good. Offering baked and fried empanadas with a myriad of fillings: spicy meat, regular meat, cheese, corn, chicken, etc, either as eat-in or take-out, plus a range of other dishes including tamales, another favourite. I love their empanadas, though.
A word on Money
At the time of this posting the official exchange rate between the Argentine peso and the US dollar is about 100 to 1. This makes the prices for many goods seem about what you would pay for them anywhere else. If you are paying with a credit card, that is the exchange rate you will get. There is, however, a black market rate which is roughly 2x that amount, or 200 pesos to $1. This is like getting a 50% discount on everything you buy. You can money-change pretty much all over town from people who will come to your hotel, or who you can find on Florida street (I used one in the Howard Johnson’s hotel). Not every shop will accept dollars, fewer still will accept euros, so it pays to have converted some bills.
But that said, and I would never advise this anywhere else, the visitor to Argentina needs to bring cash and only use cash…the savings are so huge. Most shops will also give an additional 10-20% off as well for you paying in cash, so the incentive is enormous. A decade ago, it was possible to withdraw USD from ATM machines, and even though plenty of ATM’s offer this option on the menu, it is no longer possible to do so out of fears of capital flight and Argentina’s ongoing struggles to pay off its dollar denominated IMF debt. So bring plenty of cash.
In a pinch, you might be able to find someone who will trade bitcoin with you. I did this, finding a bitcoin money changer through a nice lady I met, and it was so like a spy movie. We met in a café, and over coffee did the electronic transaction and under the table he handed me a brick of banknotes. I didn’t bother counting, and had no need to worry, though do be careful, as these types of money changers can be dodgy.
What else can you do?
You can do what I did and go one day to see an informal polo match at the Polo grounds, or on the next day go to the Hippodromo and watch a horse race. I am crazy for horses and go to see races and matches whenever I can [blogged about here]. I think this is the result of having bonding relationships with horses growing up, having a girlish fascination with them. As a child, riding horses was a big part of my life, and their softness, big doe eyes, their smell, and their strength were very calming for me. Plus, I am a horse…in every astrological sense…my spirit animals are horses, and so there you have it.
Horse races are several times a week in season. It is quite a scene. Argentina is a horse-mad country, and the racetrack (this one is a grand one in downtown, but there are two other major tracks in the City, and races are held almost daily) has restaurants, a casino, and is a great way to spend a few hours. Plus, on one evening the races were followed with a BBQ beef extravaganza. Horses and beef. Mmm. Why go anywhere else?
I will be back in Argentina for polo season in the Fall. I have loved being here, being out, and lapping up the city.
Recap of addresses and places
Hotel Club Frances–Hotel
Rodriguez Peña 1832, Recoleta, Buenos Aires
Lopez Taibo—Men’s Shoes (some bags, belts and a few women’s items)
Avenida Alvear 1902, Recoleta, Buenos Aires
Guido—Men’s Shoes (and a small selection of women’s)
Avenida Presidente Quintana 333, Recoleta, Buenos Aires
El Obrero (Great sandwhiches)
Agustín R. Caffarena 64, La Boca, Buenos Aireser
La Cabrera (Steak)
Jose A. Cabrera 5127, Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires
La Brigada (Steak)
Estados Unidos 465, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
El Cuartito (Pizza)
Talcahauno 937, between Cordoba and Paraguay in Centro, Buenos Aires
El Sanjuanino (Empanadas)
Posadas 1515, Recoleta, Buenos Aires