"Dear Ricky - it's certainly been a while since we touched bases - Hey, some wag suggested around 20 years but we were probably both in diapers back then eh? Ha ha ha!"

For some reason the fawning words are not flowing onto the screen in the usual irresistible manner.

"I hear, via the grapevine, that you have once again landed on your feet and are ensconced in a posh pad surrounded by a bevy of beauties and are in desperate need of assistance?"

Getting better!

"Word is that Buenos Aires is the new hot spot to buy property. The Rome, London and Paris of South America all rolled into one where a buck goes as far as it might in Bangladesh or Burma. You always were ahead of the trend you sly old fox."

I'm on a roll now.

"The good news is that I am coming through town in a couple of weeks and it would be sad indeed to miss an opportunity to share a glass or two for old times sake. Whaddyer think old buddy? Cheers Andrew"

That should do it. I hit SEND.

The tough part of tripping through Argentina is getting there. 22 hours after swapping the comforts of home for cramped aircraft seats, boxes of triple packed pretzels, running barefoot through x-rays at connecting US airports under "orange alert," I am finally settled beside a stunning taxi driver named Maria and heading for downtown Buenos Aires. Phew!

We pass through old neighbourhoods typical of any European capital. Irish Pubs. Antique dealers. Flower shops. Ice Cream parlours. Outdoor cafes with tables still chained together. This city starts late and plays late!

Even on Sunday morning, professional dog walkers are careful to avoid buckets of water flung determinedly from shop doorways for the morning sluice. They struggle along uneven sidewalks with a handful of straining Chihuahuas, German Shepherds and much in between. It is October and spring blossoms, the colour of indigo, cover the overhanging Jacaranda trees.

A giant obelisk soars skyward from the heart of the city. On AIDS awareness day in 2005, it was "cloaked" in a 67 metre pink condom! Surely the world's longest? We turn left from the world's widest Avenue, Nueve Julio, and speed down Avenue de Mayo. (Argentinean street names favour revolutionary dates and Generals).

Splendid baroque buildings sport the odd sapling taking root in a cracked façade and many ground floor premises are boarded-up, reflecting tough times. Protesters emerge from makeshift tents outside the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace from where Eva Peron - and later Madonna, addressed adoring throngs. On Thursdays "Mothers of The Disappeareds" carry placards. A thorny reminder of an ugly period in Argentinean politics.

So where are all the people on this sunny Sunday morning? Maybe at prayer? Perhaps in bed with their analysts? Buenos Aries, along with New York boasts the world's greatest number of psychoanalysts per head. (Where else can you buy a "Sigmund Freud" cocktail?). Possibly dreaming of love with that dishy tango Instructor? (Forget it they are all dilettantes and rarely follow through!)

We race down a narrow street and suddenly our path is blocked by hawkers pedalling everything from silver Yerba Matte cups to Victorian lamps to jewellery to didgeridoos. Maria points to a door against which a spacey young girl in dreadlocks is beating out a dissolute rhythm on a pair of African bongos. The famous San Telmo weekend market.

I pay Maria and reach for the doorbell.

Ricky hasn't changed a bit. "You'll have to wait until I've finished my tango lesson," he announces as he bounds up two flights of marble stairs. "She's been coming round twice a week and is the best in town."

I remembered that Ricky always liked to dance back in the days when jazzercise was cool. "He's come a long way," she coos, dangerously high-stepping her seriously stilettoed left foot between his perfectly spaced legs. This is clearly not a game for the novice!

Argentineans have long been considered arrogant by neighbouring Chileans and Brazilians. It has been suggested (probably by a Brit!) that Argentineans are Italians who dress like the French but want to be British. They consider themselves European.

Every French design house worth it's salt is represented in Buenos Aires - and worn with pride by beautiful women who suffer from high rates of anorexia.

Not surprising in a place which produces the world's best ice cream and lives on pizzas and pasta - when they become bored with sides of melt-in-you-mouth barbecued meat dished out in neighbourhood "parrillas" by arrogant middle aged male waiters more at home along Rome's Via Veneto. None of that "hello my name's Darren, I'll be your server" stuff here!

Ah but the Brit thing? The world's top ten polo players are Argentinean. The round red mailboxes are decidedly British as are the crown capped red phone booths. Policewomen on parade could swap hats with their British counterparts without being noticed.

National pride took a pounding in December 2001 when Argentineans awoke to find their bank accounts frozen and the peso devalued by 75%. (The currency has since improved slightly to 3 pesos to US$1).

This has brought a sudden wave of tourists to a middle-class country once too expensive to visit. Bargain hunters searching for the perfect hideaway from Northern winter blues can pick up palaces for a pittance.

Ricky settles down. The instructress, fawningly reaffirms his marked improvement, packs her pumps and heads for the stairs. Tonight he will strut his stuff at a milonga. (A tango dance hall).

The Tango goes back to the 1880's when male immigrants to Buenos Aires were forced to cavort with prostitutes and other "ladies of easy virtue" to alleviate their loneliness. To the uninitiated, it can appear as sensual sex in a standing position. The firmly held female literally drapes herself over the leg of her partner. With her eyes closed in a grin of submission, she tucks her head snugly under his chin. Only her feet are free to fly - and they do!

Ricky has cunningly caught on to a fad. His luxuriously appointed guesthouse is right in the middle of the action. Tonight he will cook dinner for a young Austrian stockbroker who's been tangoing in Salzburg on Wednesday nights and is in town to be "sharpened up". A couple from Edinburgh who are determined to "get it right" and a dewy eyed New Yorker, Emily, who has the hots for her brooding Tango teacher, Juan Carlos. She leaves town tomorrow so time is running out.

At midnight I beg a spot in the back of Juan Carlos' rusting Mazda. He was an accountant until the 2001 meltdown. When his partner committed suicide, he swapped his pens for tango pumps. At $40 an hour he earns 25 times the wage of a plumber plus obvious perks! "I am the Che Guevara of the tango scene," he asserts without expanding. Emily sighs!

At The Bien Pulenta, a tastefully restored milonga hall, we pay the entry fee of 12 pesos. The place is filling up with a curious assortment of people. Middle aged men in fedoras to hide their bald patches, simple berets or just slicked back hair to match aquiline noses. The ladies, similarly mixed, are wasp-waisted and wear the pallid complexion of nurses on nightshift.

The music blasts through oversized speakers. Choosing a partner is like bidding on a bauble at auction without alerting the competition. A special nod or wink is all it takes. The man makes the approach but the woman may look away, hoping for a better offer.

Poor Emily has spent 3 sad evenings waiting for "the look". Juan Carlos is busy searching for tomorrow's business. I leave by taxi at 5am. The place is packed.

Next morning I help Emily with her suitcase. "Good grief what have you got in here?" "Three bottles of Malbec and a chopped up tango teacher." she announces with a sardonic grin.



In many ways Argentina is like Canada. A huge, safe, middle class country with friendly well-educated people who love to ski, hike, mountain bike, and canoe. The main difference is cost and climate.

COSTS: Currently less than half the price of neighbouring Chile and Brazil. (How long can it last?). A good bottle of Trapiche Malbec runs $3.50 - A bottle of Vat 69 (my tipple) a mere $6 and an all you can eat feed of the juiciest tenderloin $6. Accommodations are reasonable but rising fast especially in Buenos Aires. Affable Ricky currently charges $57/$80 S/D including breakfast in fashionable digs

GEOGRAPHY: Argentina stretches around 3500kms from the scorching Northern desert to chilly Tierra del Fuego - the bottom of the world. Much of the action is along the Andes corridor. The vineyards of Mendoza. The lake and ski areas around Bariloche (much like Banff). The massive Glaciar Perito Moreno near El Calafate. On the East coast Peninsular Valdes is great for penguins, elephant seals, Southern Right Whales and Welsh teashops!

CLIMATE: Ski season is mid-June to mid October. November/December is spring and a great time to visit. Jan/Feb is summer and hot and humid in BA.

SAFETY: Generally Argentina is as safe as Canada but the devaluation has created poverty and increased crime is reported in major cities. Take normal precautions.

GETTING AROUND: The buses are great and cheap. $25 will buy you 10 hours in comfort. Taxi drivers are amazingly honest. Car rental runs around $45 a day. Flying is reliable at North American prices. Tours are well organized but many guides speak only Spanish and Portuguese.




Copyright © 2007 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.