YOU know you’ve hit downtown Buenos Aires when you spot the portrait of Eva Péron on the Ministry of Health building up ahead. “Yes, Evita!” says Viviana, our guide, delighted we’ve recognised a national icon.
“She spoke to us for the very last time from there.” We look up as our car negotiates the traffic lights on the Avenida 9 de Julio, temporarily distracted from the phenomenon that is the world’s widest dual carriageway, all 14 lanes of it.
Eva Duarte, radio star and glamorous wife of post-war Argentine president Juan Péron, died in 1952. Like many a famous person to die young – she was just 33 – she lives on in the heart, her role as a champion of workers’ rights acquiring near-mythic status, reinforced when Madonna played her in the 1996 film. Venture to Evita’s final resting-place at Recoleta Cemetery in the city’s plushest suburb, and you’ll find red roses adorning the trelliswork, and out-of-town visitors posing for photos beside the plaque that bears her name.
The cemetery itself is extraordinary – a mini-city of family mausoleums packed together in a network of narrow lanes. Get lost among the deceased elite for half an hour and you’ll be desperate for signs of everyday life – which, fortunately, are waiting for you at the cafes lining the nearby Plaza de la Recoleta. Sit in the shade of the huge gran gomero tree, whose elephantine roots are so big they’re held up with metal props, and stare across to the fine 18th-century church of El Pilar, a city landmark. Then order up coffee and facturas – pastries filled with dulce de leche, a sweet, soft caramel made with condensed milk – and watch the world go by. On Sundays a craft market materialises near the church, with stalls offering hand-crafted silver jewellery – silver is what gave Argentina its name, after all – leather belts and handbags, and much more besides.
In her short time as Argentina’s First Lady, Eva Péron made regular appearances on the balcony of the presidential palace, on the Plaza de Mayo in the old city. The Casa Rosada – named for its distinctive pink paintwork – has stood on the plaza since the late 1880s, but the square itself was on the plans when the Spanish founded Buenos Aires beside the Rio de la Plata in the late 16th century. In recent times it has become a natural place of protest. This is where the mothers of “the Disappeared” march in silence on Thursday afternoons, demanding the truth about events during Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship; a regime that toppled only after the miscalculated invasion of the Falklands – Las Malvinas – in 1982.
For Britons, the name General Belgrano conjures images of the Argentine battleship sunk during the Falklands War. So it’s a revelation to see a memorial to the general himself, in a small courtyard in nearby San Telmo. A hero of the early 19th-century independence movement, Belgrano is honoured for designing the national flag. His memorial stands on La Defensa, a street of symbolic significance in this, the city’s oldest barrio. Here you’ll find cobbled streets of antique shops, stuccoed churches, leafy squares and some of the city’s most characterful cafes, restaurants and – inevitably for Argentina – tango bars.
You need to travel a little further south to find the reputed birthplace of tango – an unruly, former brothel district by the old docks. La Boca turns up its Italian immigrant origins for the tourists: its ramshackle houses, painted most colours of the rainbow, are a tourist’s gift. Locals will dance for you at the cafes lining the main street before nightfall – it’s not the place to be after dark – but it’s a little more Strictly than sultry.
For tango passion, you want the city’s parks at weekends. Couples practise their moves at a free, open-air milonga session in Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo on summer Sunday afternoons. Nearby tango bars come alive around midnight any night of the week; but for a more polished performance we headed for a Carlos Gardel tribute evening downtown – dinner and a floorshow inspired by the celebrated 1930s tango singer, the dancing starting schoolgirl modest and ending in a startling display of sinuously synchronised limb-tangling.
Watch a floor show of a different kind at any of the parrillas – steak houses – for which San Telmo is known. If you’re hungry enough, order the parrillada mixed grill and watch as flames leap in the huge firepit beside the resident barbecuer. A typical parrillada will include more cuts of steak than you knew existed, along with chicken, chorizo sausage and crispy bits of intestinal pork and beef that wouldn’t make it onto many menus in Britain.
If the muddle of colonial streets in San Telmo proclaim their Spanish heritage, the broad boulevards, parks, public buildings and mansions downtown and in the northern suburbs of Recoleto, Retiro and Palermo have earned Buenos Aires the sobriquet Paris of the South. You could forget you’re in Latin America here, until you spy one of the city’s paseaperros – professional dog-walkers with as many as 15 best friends on a leash; or come across a line of borracho trees beside the road. These native “drunken stick” trees have stubbly, swollen girths and a lurching stance that lends them the air of Tolkien’s Ents on a lads’ night out.
Most travellers to Buenos Aires, for all its day and night-time attractions, are on their way somewhere else – the Pampas grasslands, perhaps, or the high peaks of Patagonia; or the thundering Iguacu Falls on the border with Brazil. In summer, plenty of residents leave town too, but they’re not going so far. From newly fashionable Puerto Madero, ferries depart for a place that three centuries ago was a thorn in Buenos Aires’ side: the ex-Portuguese settlement of Colonia del Sacramento on the opposite bank of the Rio de la Plata. These days its old town is a Unesco world heritage site, and many Argentinians own second properties there.
It takes just an hour by high-speed ferry to cross to Colonia, in neighbouring Uruguay. Day trips run year-round, and to appreciate the contrast with the bright lights of Buenos Aires, stay in one of its characterful boutique hotels.
Engage a guide to walk you around the beautifully restored barrio historico and explain its origins – a complicated story involving trading rivalries, weak kings and bullion – then head to El Drugstore, Colonia’s quirkiest bar, on the plaza outside the oldest church in Uruguay. There, order up a Patricia beer and chivito – wafer-thin slices of beef, ham and cheese in a bun – and chill until it’s time to join local families sharing gossip and gourds of yerbe mate tea in the park above the harbour. The floor show this time – a breathtaking spectacle before dinner – is the largest sun you’ve ever seen, slipping silently into the Rio de la Plata.
Spend a day or two in this other world, where vintage cars double as ad hoardings, dogs snooze on cobbled streets and bronzed bodies stretch out on beaches up river, and you’ll begin to wonder if Buenos Aires’ Avenida 9 de Julio was just a figment of your imagination. But you’ll be refreshed and ready to return, if just to count again the lanes of traffic outside the Ministry of Health building on your way to the airport.
Journey Latin America specialises in tailor-made holidays and group tours to Latin America. Its five-night Taste of Argentina and Uruguay, including two nights in Buenos Aires and two nights in Colonia, costs from £1,422 per person. The price includes flights from Edinburgh or Glasgow with Air France, accommodation, transfers, excursions and breakfast daily. Contact Journey Latin America, tel: 020 8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk