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IN STEP WITH BUENOS AIRES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hernan, our taxi driver in Buenos Aires, one night after a dinner flowing with wine, offered a resonant assessment of his town.

"There are two things I love," he said, looking at us in his rearview mirror. "First, the weather. Second, it doesn't matter where you come from."

I can't agree with the former. We expected summer warmth during a February trip to the Southern Hemisphere, but it rained most of the seven days my fiancee and I spent in Argentina.

But the truth of the latter point - Buenos Aires welcomed us, as it seems to welcome all newcomers - wiped out any chill and left only pleasant memories of my new favorite city.

The most cosmopolitan of Latin American capitals, Buenos Aires oozes beauty - from its European-infused architecture to its soaring monuments to its stunningly good-looking inhabitants, who call themselves porteM-qos (people of the port), to the passion and luster of the tango. I did double-takes everywhere, at animate and inanimate objects alike.

It also is a city of perpetual reinvention - navigated by the Portuguese, settled by the Spanish, attacked by the British and influenced by the Americans.

The reinvention continues now. After emerging from a financial crash in 2001 in which the national currency lost 75 percent of its value, Argentina and its capital city are clawing back.

The country's tourism ministry has embarked on an ambitious pitch for visitors, promoting Argentina as an attractive alternative to Europe - offering urban sophistication at a much lower price. The nation is stable, but the peso is weak.

Buenos Aires is now rife with chatter in several languages, and daily nonstop flights from New York are crowded. We encountered travelers from Germany and various spots in Latin America.

Thankfully, we found that in a region of more than 12 million people, there are enough places to avoid touristy klatches.

Part of that can be traced to our decision to rent an apartment, even though visitors seeking a comfortable hotel will find many that don't cost much. Our one-bedroom flat in residential Recoleta totaled $245 for the week and was cozy - deceptively so, considering how large it looked in a picture online. The neighborhood, about a 20-minute walk from downtown, is home to upwardly mobile professionals and families as well as cafes and bistros and Parque Las Heras, a park famous for its dog walkers.

A strollable city

We got our exercise through marathon strolls around Buenos Aires, an eminently walkable city, which, like those in Europe, is clearly divided - in this case by wide avenidas, and smaller calles.

Neighborhoods aren't clearly marked but can be distinguished by differences in architecture - soaring towers give way to quiet, residential blocks, which in turn give way to crumbling tenements. Still, everywhere a visitor turns are hints of Europe: a clock tower replicating Big Ben, a cobblestone street out of Sicily, an apartment building beckoning Paris.

The downsides are a paucity of street signs, especially in neighborhoods outside of the downtown, and a glut of dog excrement. Picking up after pets seems to be lost on most animal owners.

Our first real walk, on a Sunday morning, took us to Palermo Viejo, Old Palermo, now the new "in" neighborhood, comprised of what the locals call Palermo SoHo and Palermo Hollywood.

The area is rife with funky clothing stores and their wafer-thin patrons. Despite the influx of the young and the rich, the Old World lingers at Plaza Palermo Viejo, lined with cafes and speckled with artists and their wares.

Over brunch, we eavesdropped on old men chatting, and watched a peddler selling hunks of cheese and salami by the kilo to passers-by. Picture a quainter version of a hot dog vendor.

We took in more of traditional Argentina later that sweaty evening at the Feria de Mataderos, an outdoor market and urban rodeo that's open December through March on the outskirts of the city, an hour by bus from downtown. We sauntered among stalls of gaucho (Argentine cowboy) clothing amid the sultry strains of tango music. Later, we marveled like awe-struck kids as gauchos raced their steeds at full gallop down a roped-off city street.

We stayed closer to downtown on subsequent days, taking in historical Buenos Aires and its abundant venues for art, shopping and culture. Our first stop was the Cementerio de la Recoleta, a vast necropolis that houses the remains of the city's richest - who, even in death, seem to have continued their opulent lifestyle.

Evita's burial site

The remains of several ex-presidents and business leaders lie in marble mausoleums, all sleeping eternally in varnished coffins behind locked glass doors. You can take a peek into many of the crypts and find faded photographs, wilting flowers and generous tributes from their families, friends and lackeys.

This is where the populist leader Eva Peron - Evita - was laid to rest after her death in 1952 (and after her body was finally returned after an epic body-snatching). There are no signs to her final resting spot, but guided tours can lead you there.

Sites outside the cemetery that are worth a visit include the airy Retiro train station, built by the British in 1915, the modern MALBA art museum, featuring works from Latin American artists, and the pink presidential palace, Casa Rosada.

Under the palace is a national museum, although the exhibits gloss over Argentina's seamier history of military dictatorships and repression. (An English translation at the museum is poorly written). A guide can point out the balcony where Evita addressed her adoring fans.

Near Casa Rosada is the Plaza de Mayo, where every Thursday, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo march to demand full government disclosure of the atrocities Argentina committed against its citizens in the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s.

Tango everywhere

In addition to shopping for well-discounted clothes and leather goods, don't leave Buenos Aires until you see the tango. It hasn't lost its sultry luster since the dance's first sensual steps in the city's bordellos 120 years ago.

You can find pairs dancing for tips by the pedestrian mall Calle Florida or in the touristy La Boca section. But the best places to see the real thing, in all its passion and lust and heartbreak are in the dinner theaters - especially the noted Bar Sur in the San Telmo neighborhood.

Shows there begin at 8 p.m. and don't end until after 2 a.m. (You're not obliged to stay the entire time.) After the dancers finish, they likely will grab a guest from the audience for an awkward spin on the floor, as they did with us.

We sought another prized product in Argentina - steak - for most dinners, and I wound up eating more meat in six days than I usually do in six months (and at hours when Americans are usually past dessert - about 11 p.m., when dinner there often is just starting).

Steak in Argentina is on another level. The cows' grass diet gives the meat an earthy, silky taste, and the spices rubbed into the sizzling beef are luscious.

Great meals

Steak is often paired with Malbec, the national wine, and dinner is topped off with a dense flan drizzled with the traditional dulce de leche (caramelized sugar in milk).

Parillas - barbecue houses - are everywhere, but Desnivel, also in the San Telmo section, shouldn't be missed. (Apropos of food on another level, Desnivel actually means "unevenness.")

Fed in a dingy, split-level room that booms with crashing plates and drunken laughter, patrons don't soon forget their meals at Desnivel, even if they tank up on more wine than they should. The waiters are surly but oddly charming. Meals there shouldn't run more than $15 a person, wine included.

We returned for dinner twice.

Perhaps Hernan, our taxi driver, might want to add steak dinners there as another thing that makes Buenos Aires a place to love.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there: Several airlines offer connecting service from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Buenos Aires. Also, a number of airlines fly between New York City and Buenos Aires. The trip is lengthy, nearly 11 hours.

What to do: For tango, Bar Sur is well recommended; Estados Unidos 299, in San Telmo district; about $70 a couple, including drinks and snacks; reservations recommended.

Where to eat: Desnivel Parrilla Restaurante; Defensa 855, San Telmo; dialing from Buenos Aires: 54-11 4300-9081.

Where to stay: Adelsur apartment rental agency. One-bedroom apartments are about $220 per week; about $400 for two-bedrooms. Host family service also available. Details: www.adelsur.com.

Information: For more information about visiting Buenos Aires, try the Web site www.bue.gov.ar. For travel to Argentina, call 212-603-0443 or visit www.turismo.gov.ar. - Joshua Robin

Day trip to Uruguay beach

There are several good parks and squares in Buenos Aires, but people looking for a real oasis to escape the city during the summer usually hit the beaches.

Because Buenos Aires' waterfront is industrial, the closest place to hit the surf during the warm months (our winters) is in Uruguay, across the Rio de la Plata in the riverfront town of Colonia del Sacramento. You can make it there in as little as an hour.

We left for Uruguay early one morning aboard a Buquebus ferry, which departs from Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires about six times a day for a trip that lasts from an hour to about three hours, depending on what type of ship you pick. The price runs from about $34 to $60 round-trip for tourist class.

Both types of ferries are comfortable, with reclining seats, a duty-free store and a snack bar. Car transport is available on the larger boats.

It's a short stroll from the terminal in Colonia del Sacramento to the downtown, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates to a 16th-century Portuguese colonial settlement. From there, beachgoers usually take a taxi or rent a mo-ped. We opted for the latter, which cost about $15 for an hour and a half.

From there, anyone you ask can point out how to get to one of several beach spots. A 10-minute ride later, we found a sandy knoll facing a stretch of iron-colored river water that was warm and calm.

After a sufficient dunk, we found lunch in one of several cafes in historic Colonia, which can easily be explored in an afternoon.

A good, shady spot is Parrilla del Barrio (calle Real 166), where the owner, Rolando Calabro, makes his own Merlot and limoncello liqueur. He also makes homemade pizzas and an elegant, light salad.

After lunch, we toured the old town, which has the Portuguese Museum and ruins of several buildings dating as far back as the late 17th century. More interesting was the still-functioning church that dates to the turn of the 18th century. Inside the cool sanctuary are ancient Christian relics that were gifts from a wealthy parishioner.

Nearby is a slightly older lighthouse, or faro. Those who aren't afraid of heights or claustrophobia can climb the narrow staircase to the top for a glistening view of the water.

- Joshua Robin

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