Buenos Aires, Always in Style

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 10, 2005

There's a high beauty quotient among the people of Argentina, and they dress with flair. Even women in jeans have that ability to throw on an ordinary scarf or shawl in such a way that they end up looking elegant.

My friend Pam and I look at each other immediately after arriving on the streets of Buenos Aires. We've been friends since college days -- so long we can sometimes read each other's minds. She says it first: "Haircuts."

We stop in the first salon we pass. At these prices, we might as well get highlights, too. A wash, cut, highlights and blow-dry cost 37 pesos each -- about $13.

Try doing that in Paris, which I've come to think of as the Buenos Aires of Europe.

I came to Argentina last month hoping to find a viable alternative to Europe, where the almighty euro is still giving the U.S. dollar a firm beating, recent gains notwithstanding. I happily anticipated that I would find things cheaper here -- after all, the Argentine peso went into free fall back in 2002. But how exceptional would the bargains be, and would it really be a true substitute -- close enough to the original to satisfy the traveler yearning for a European-style experience?

Matter of fact, during my days and nights in Buenos Aires, I had to keep reminding myself that I was in South America. Walking wide boulevards lined with fine, European-style architecture, past chic restaurants and bistros where people linger over meals, you sometimes feel as if you are in Paris. Late at night, though, the bright lights and indefinable sense of energy in the streets reminded me more of New York -- although New York is much more ethnically diverse. Porteños, as residents of Buenos Aires are called, are predominantly of European extraction.

Basically, visiting Buenos Aires is like going to Europe and finding that everything is half-off American prices. Plus you've got coupons that knock another 20 percent off select goods and services.

Granted, you still have to get there. But our package price of $900 each -- about the cost of airfare to Europe this summer, or to Argentina, for that matter -- included airfare direct from Dulles, six nights in a very nice, centrally located hotel with breakfasts, airport transfers in a private car with a tour guide to greet us, and a half-day bus tour of the city.

If we'd been extremely frugal -- eating in the cheapest restaurants and taking public buses for 30 cents -- we could have gotten by on less than $200 for all other expenses that week. We chose instead to enjoy a few affordable luxuries. This included taking cabs (after all, the meters start at 55 cents), great meals in beautiful settings, a day trip out of the city and an overnight trip to an estancia, one of the many former estates where the wealthiest aristocrats of Argentine society once lived and trained their polo ponies during the months they were not vacationing in Europe.

Unfortunately, we couldn't ignore the bargains in shop windows. After all, our salon "savings" alone could buy us three or four pairs of fashionable leather shoes, or four or five stylish woolen sweaters, or maybe a pair of those boots of buttery soft pigskin, with a purse to match.

Of course, this tourist windfall comes at the expense of the Argentine people who, despite a stable government at the moment, still struggle with the fallout of many years of inept and corrupt leadership. Just a few years ago, the Argentine peso was pegged to the American dollar, one for one. During our trip, banks were giving about 2.8 pesos for one dollar. Even that apparently did not reflect the true state of the peso: Most shops and restaurants were happy to take American dollars and give a flat three-to-one exchange.

Yet the city -- or at least the central areas that tourists frequent -- shows few, if any, signs of the financial collapse that the country has endured. Restaurants, bars and tango venues are filled with locals. Parks and buildings both public and private seem wellkept. You see fewer obviously destitute people than you would in similar neighborhoods in American cities. Although the U.S. State Department warns of petty crime, I feel safe walking in busy downtown neighborhoods both day and night.

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