First, the bad news. It takes a really long time to fly from the United States to Buenos Aires. A really long time -- more than 10 hours nonstop from New York City. If you aren't traveling first class (we weren't), coach class is full (it was on our flight) and you can't sleep on airplanes (I can't), you are going to suffer.
Now, the good news. It's worth it.
Buenos Aires is a bustling, exciting metropolis of 3 million people (the metropolitan area is four times that size) that has the look and feel of a grand European capital. But it also has a casual, South American flair that is nothing like Paris or Rome, to which it is often compared.
It has plenty of cultural and tourist attractions and a pleasingly temperate climate. Many people don't speak English, so a little Spanish goes a long way. But even if they're struggling to understand your English, Portenos -- as natives of Buenos Aires are called -- are friendly and helpful.
Perhaps best of all in these cost-conscious times, Buenos Aires is very affordable, thanks to a highly favorable exchange rate. You can easily get by on less than $100 a day without having to sacrifice comfort or starve. I know because we set out to prove it.
Airfares from New York are currently running about $500 to $650 roundtrip. Ours was close to the upper part of that range on American Airlines.
Landing at Ezeiza International Airport, you can take a taxi into the city for about $25. Or do what we did: catch the city bus for about 2 centavos, about 80 cents. The buses are plenty enough, but the trip takes two hours.
For lodging, we focused our search on the Bohemian working-class neighborhood of San Telmo, which is close to the downtown business district. We visited one place that had rooms for the equivalent of $20, but they were small and dark with hard mattresses and no private bath.
We settled on a new hostel called the America del Sur on Chacobuco Street. It was bright, modern and spotlessly clean. For around $15, you can get a bunk in a four-person dormitory-style room. We opted for private rooms, which cost a shade more than $50.
The people behind the counter were lively and cheerful. Reggae music blared from hidden speakers and they invited us to help ourselves to a huge refrigerator in the lobby that bore the bright blue-and-white insignia of the popular Argentine beer Quilmes. Inside were plenty of bottles of cold Quilmes and bottled water.
I asked Fernando, a bespectacled, bearded young man at the front desk, what were the best three things about Buenos Aires.
"The night life, the women and the people," he said.
I asked Laura, a pretty young woman working beside him, what the one thing a visitor to Buenos Aires should do. She told me two things: "Dance the tango. And eat barbecue."
The next day -- a glistening, warm late summer day -- we walked all over Buenos Aires, hitting some of the major tourist attractions: the Obelisk, built in 1936 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Spanish settlement; the Avenida de 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires' version of the Champs-Elysee and reputed to be the widest street in the world; the magnificent Teatro Colon Opera House; and the literally colorful El Caminito, a tourist enclave within the working class neighborhood called La Boca, where the houses are brightly painted in different colors, a tradition created by necessity. They were painted with whatever paint the residents happen to have available.
We had to stop by the Casa Rosada, or Pink House, which is the official residence of Argentina's president. We also visited the Recoleta Cemetery in the upscale neighborhood of the same name. As strange as it may seem, this huge cemetery is probably Buenos Aires' most famous tourist attraction. Many of Argentina's historic figures -- leaders, businessmen, writers, artists -- are interred at Recoleta in spectacularly ornate crypts. The most famous -- and most visited -- is that of Eva Peron, the famous Evita who married Argentinean President Juan Peron and became a powerful political figure before she died of cancer in her 30s.
Buenos Aires is a culinary paradise. You can eat well and eat cheaply. Back at our hostel, we feasted on parrilla -- barbecued grilled grass-fed Argentinean beef -- for 45 pesos, about $12. If you want to go upscale parrilla, try La Brigada on Avenida Estados Unidos. Several local people told us it has the best parrilla in the city. All I know is it was delicious and relatively inexpensive. Two people can have hors d'oeuvres, steak, dessert and share a bottle of wine for about $130.
For lunch, we hit San Juanino, whose specialty is empanadas, pies stuffed with beef, chicken or vegetables. In the restaurant, an empanada was 5 pesos, about $1.40. If you get them to go, they are 3 pesos each, about 85 cents. Three of them make a filling meal.
We also dropped by las cuartetas -- a Buenos Aires institution near the Obelisk. It sells a wonderful pizza slice ("porcion de pizza") for less than a dollar.
And if you go to Buenos Aires, you have to try the ice cream. Freddo's is a popular chain serving creamy Italian-style gelato, although an Argentinean I met outside Freddo's in San Telmo (he used to live in Chicago) insisted that a place a few blocks away called Pepino's was better. I tried both. To me, it was a toss-up.
But, without a doubt, the best deal -- and most fun -- was the tango lesson I took at the hostel. It cost 20 pesos, about $5.50. The teacher was a woman named Viviana Parra, who'd recently returned to Buenos Aires after teaching tango in New York (and appearing in a few Broadway shows) for 15 years.
Viviana was a terrific teacher. Our class of four started with walking forward and backward trying to move to the beat of the tango music played over the loudspeakers as a handful of fellow guests watched from the fringes of the room.
Laura (the pretty woman at the reception desk) had told me just before the lesson: "Remember," she said very solemnly. "Tango is walking with style." I tried to remember that.
After an hour and a half I was able to do some rudimentary steps with what I hoped was some rudimentary style.
Afterward, Viviana asked me what I thought of tango. I pondered it for a moment, then told her: "It was like floating."
"It keeps you in the moment," she said.
She could have been speaking about Buenos Aires.