Belles on Location

Bright Lights and Tango Steps in la Bonita Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires, there are many reasons to start dancing the tango

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Dancing shoes on display in San Telmo

Arriving in Buenos Aires really was a breath of fresh air. After three months of traveling in South America, this big city with its grand buildings and subway system felt very cosmopolitan indeed. My hotel was just off the Avenida Corrientes, a main thoroughfare like Broadway in New York; it’s chock full of theaters and bright lights. For this city girl, it was like coming home.

[pullquote]On the other side of town, in San Telmo, the most gorgeous dancing shoes are on display in tango shops. Like Paris, this is a city of artists – and it shows.[/pullquote]I soon discovered to my delight that Argentina’s capital city is the perfect destination for a Travel Belle, with charm and style in spades. Porteñas (the locals) stroll along the tree-lined boulevards of the Recoleta neighborhood sporting beautiful handbags and pausing to look at the mouthwatering confections in the windows of the many chocolatiers.

On the other side of town, in San Telmo, the most gorgeous dancing shoes are on display in tango shops. Like Paris, this is a city of artists – and it shows.

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Is it a theater or a bookshop? Look carefully.

Travel Belles love books

My first destination, on the afternoon I arrived in Buenos Aires, was the El Ateneo bookshop on Calle Santa Fe, which happens to be one of the best bookstores in the world. It is housed in a former theater and retains all of the original features, meaning that you browse for books under a heavenly frescoed dome, take center stage for a cup of coffee and settle in to read in one of the theatre boxes.

Good books deserve such a stunning location and the two art forms work in such perfect harmony that it’s no wonder you will find people ensconced in almost every corner, whether they’ve been lucky enough to score a seat or not, nose buried in some great literary tome. I could have easily lost myself in there for hours.

In Buenos Aires, you don’t have to visit anywhere in particular to find great art. It is at every street corner, on every pavement, in every building. Even the main government building is a fashion statement; the Casa Rosada is a very stylish shade of pink.

At this time of year, with bright, crisp mornings and the first buds of spring appearing on the trees, Buenos Aires is truly beautiful. You can practice your tango steps with the handy pavement instructions outside the Confiteria Ideal, one of the oldest and most venerated milongas, or dance halls, in town. Or, admire the shop signs in the traditional tango script and the Banksy-style graffiti in San Telmo.

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El Caminito

Still, the most artistic street in the whole of Buenos Aires has to be El Caminito, found in the working-class district of La Boca. I had heard that El Caminito comprised a few colorful houses, but it was far more enchanting than that. Out of gray surroundings, this incredible, eye-popping street appears.

The terraced buildings are all paintbox colors and there are huge murals of street scenes on every spare wall. It is a total tourist-trap, but here, that didn’t put me off. The gaucho dancers, the shopfronts with their artsy signs and artisinal products, even the meandering camera-toting tourists just somehow work here.

On Sundays, most of Buenos Aires shuts down, but San Telmo comes alive. It’s the day of the world-famous market, where the bohemian trades of antiques, vintage clothing, handicrafts and art spill out from the shops and onto the cobbled streets. It is a great place to wander round, looking at all the treasures on offer and maybe buying a few, while vendors offering hot drinks and empanadas wheel their carts around you.

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Indoor Market at San Telmo

[pullquote]After wandering around the markets of San Telmo with stalls full of tango-related items, and having fallen in love with the shoes, I decided to throw caution – and possibly dignity – to the wind. [/pullquote]Market stalls take over almost the entire length of the Calle Defensa, but my personal favorite area was the indoor market, which houses the fruit and veg stalls as well as the most wonderful Aladdin’s caves of antique and artisan items. It is open all the time and also well worth visiting on a weekday when it’s easier to have a relaxed perusal.

You can’t go to Buenos Aires and miss out on tango; the music, poetry and dance are the cultural lifeblood of this city. Milongas are all over the place, or you can watch a more formal tango show over dinner at many restaurants. Of course, if you really want to get into the spirit of it, dance classes are available.

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Mate cups at the San Telmo market are made from gourds

And now it was clearly time to learn the tango in Buenos Aires

After wandering around the markets of San Telmo with stalls full of tango-related items, and having fallen in love with the shoes, I decided to throw caution – and possibly dignity – to the wind. I found a cultural center offering beginners’ tango lessons that very evening, when I was met by a very welcoming lady, who looked like the archetypal Argentinian dancer: tall and slender, raven-haired, red tango shoes on her feet.

She then introduced me to her not-so-Argentinian partner, Gerry from Ireland. And so the class began. I was spun around the room by each of them in turns, trying to take in all of their rapid instructions. “More resistance,” “relax,” “pivot.” My head swam.

Finally, Gerry said, “Stop trying to memorize. Just feel.”

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Mural in La Boca

That’s the amazing thing about the tango; it’s not a dance you learn by steps; it’s a dance that happens by unspoken communication with your partner. You don’t have to worry about where to put your left foot on beat four; you just feel what your partner is telling you and it happens. The moment you let go of trying to think about it all, you start dancing the tango.

Now, I’m not saying I looked like a proper tango dancer with all the kicks and pasos and twirls, but I very nearly felt like one. The fact was, after just a few minutes of learning, I had started to dance.

Despite all the wonderful things the city had already offered me, I think it was at that moment that I truly fell in love with Buenos Aires.

 

Originally from Salisbury in the UK, Katy Stewart is an itinerant freelance writer. She indulges her passions for travel, film and literature at her blog, Starry-Eyed Travels. You can follow her on twitter @SEtravels.

This article has 9 comments

  1. Abby

    I stayed in San Telmo during a recent trip there and loved it. My flight was Sunday evening, and I had to pull myself away! Did you walk through Carlos Gardel’s old neighborhood? It was fascinating. I wish I had taken a class or seen a show. It just wasn’t meat to be on that trip.

  2. Kathryn Schipper

    This looks just ravishing! Never been to South America but Buenos Aires is high on my list.

  3. Amanda

    I loved La Boca as well, but San Telmo was my favorite neighborhood – you can’t beat the Tango being performed in the outdoor square! I wonder if you happened upon that amazing silver store called Pallaroles? Thanks for this stellar tour of an endlessly fascinating city.

  4. Justin Lindblad

    I love Buenos Aires, actually have a house in Garzon in Uruguay so every time I head down I swing through BA for a few nights. Such an amazing city with so much to offer. It is actually our most popular destination along with so many great connections using the city as one’s hub.

    Great article!

    Justin
    Willingfoot.com

  5. Runaway Brit

    What a great post about Buenos Aires! Your passion for the city is clearly evident in the way you write, I wasn’t particularly enamoured with BA but reading this from your perspective has shown me that maybe I should have given it more attention than I did. I really wish I’d known about the theatre bookshop, that place looks heavenly 🙂

  6. Krista

    That has to be THE coolest bookstore ever! 🙂 I love this post, Katy. 🙂 My friend Maddalena in Bologna spent three months in Buenos Aires JUST to learn the tango. 🙂 Love you adventurous girls! 🙂

  7. Kate Turner

    I’m even more determined to go to Buenos Aires now, Katy! It sounds amazing. Not sure I would be brave enough to try tango (being the not-so-proud owner of two left feet), but I’d definitely want to spend a while in that book store. What a lovely use of an old theatre.

  8. Margo Millure

    Take me here now, pleez.

  9. Jessica

    I visited Buenos Aires in 2005 and loved it – I hope to go back sometime and bring my husband!

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