The sun was setting and the Rio de la Plata was shimmering as my girlfriend and I clambered out of an intercity bus into the lengthening shadows of Buenos Aires. We walk briskly for the nearest ATM, at times breaking into a jog.
We had spent much of the afternoon with 30,000 rowdy Argentines at a soccer match in the nearby city of La Plata, with scalped tickets and no seat numbers. We enjoyed the crowd's rabid hanging-from-the-rafters enthusiasm, as well the over-the-top, low-budget pyrotechnics, which pounded our ear drums. When the other half of the stadium celebrates the opposing team's goal, I laugh out loud at the silence that envelops us – realizing quickly it's a mistake. No forehead slaps or boos, here; just grim silence. Later, there is nearly an on-field brawl.
Fearing a human traffic jam in the ramshackle laneways snaking away from the massive stadium, we flee the game early and jump on the first bus out of town.
The chaos fades.
But now, with the clock ticking down on a dinner reservation in the San Telmo neighbourhood, we are frantically searching for an enclosed bank machine – to change in, of all things. We find one, and begin our transformation: She slips a black dress out of her handbag and slinks behind the bank machine to change; looking to see if anyone is coming, I stand guard, taking advantage of the downtime to tuck in, button up, and roll down the sleeves of my shirt.
We feel like dirt-cheap spies, secret agents for an impoverished country. But this was our last night in Buenos Aires, and we were anxious to breathe in as much of this city as possible: the hauntingly tragic bullet-pocked art deco architecture, the anguished tango and bandoneon music.
But mainly we sought to swing B.A.'s pendulum back toward luxury from grittiness, the final push in a sometimes dizzying see-saw that has the menu at Oviedo – a plush restaurant we had visited earlier in the week – warning us to jump in a cab outside the front door, to avoid a rather unglamorous mugging. This is the bearable reality of the affordable extravagance that has drawn us, and many others we know, to live large at a price that few entrancing global metropolises can match; here, travellers with medium-size pockets can visit tasting-menu restaurants that would be bank-breaking in New York or London.
Which is why we're scrambling to get to a 9 p.m. reservation for a 16-course dinner at a restaurant opened by Chef Alejandro Digilio, who honed his molecular gastronomy chops at Spain's famously experimental El Bulli. At La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar, which seats only 25, pork is served with apple foam and its miniature steak with a spoon, since that's all you need to slice through the tender beef. The other dishes, from a pumpkin ravioli with oyster pâté to a deep-fried quail egg, were truly mind-bending. Dinner, which included two glasses of Champagne and a nice bottle of wine, cost about $200.
Of course, it's relatively cheap here because Argentina's economic collapse in 2001 decimated the peso. A year later, the country's president, Eduardo Duhalde, tore down the currency's peg to the U.S. dollar, and the poverty line rose to swallow 60 per cent of the country's population. This followed a series of violent coups d'état and the gut-wrenching horror of the Disappeared, a sickening political process by which dissidents, union leaders, journalists and political opponents were rounded up, incarcerated, drugged and tossed from planes to their deaths.
We learned some of this on a political walking tour, which is more fascinating than it sounds, given how little we knew about the country's turbulent past. But it was worth knowing, since much of what is great about the country now arose as a result of such sadness.
Tango emerged among early Italian immigrants in the San Telmo neighbourhood, a self-expression born of a broken cardinal promise: That of a fresh start in a new world. Now, of course, the promise of mastering tango draws flocks of new migrants to the city's tango halls, or milongas. At Salon Canning, we watched, transfixed, as an old man sang haunting classics, and then watched dancing – a mix of Argentines and visiting Europeans – until we were drowsy. Leaving well past 3 a.m., everyone was still sliding across the floor to the mournful sounds.
Even the steak, which is cheap and available at any corner restaurant (many of which spill boisterously to the curb), springs from historic tragedy: The pampas plains, which were home and hunting grounds for indigenous tribes, were conquered brutally by Spanish colonists who introduced farming for cattle.
Also, the country's beloved President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, known universally as Cristina, is former president Nestor Kirchner's widow. And so it goes, on and on. Even the lovely antique markets, where I picked up some 78s of Argentine crooner Carlos Gardel for my gramophone back in Toronto, were later tainted – after watching Niall Ferguson's Ascent of Money documentary on the BBC – with knowledge that many in Buenos Aires's middle class sold off their silverware and knick-knacks simply to survive.
But to paint this admittedly faded city as sad is totally misleading. It is a vibrant place, full of beautiful architecture, amazing artisans and fantastic restaurants. If you like to dance, this is the place. If you want to visit the vineyards down south, go ahead. We opted for a totally urban vacation, simply living large within our means: renting a quaint one-bedroom apartment for a pittance in Palermo Soho (where designers and artists have an endless number of small shops), drinking wine and dining out every night – becoming total flâneurs.
There was much we didn't do. We barely scratched the long list of friends' recommendations for restaurants, and ventured out of the city only for day trips, not for long, languid hauls into wine country. We did, though, find ourselves interrupting pleasant strolls with surprisingly serious perusals of local apartment listings. There's an undeniable romance in Buenos Aires's wilted glory.
IF YOU GO
Salon Canning: This venerable old milonga has tango shows, as well as performances by musicians and singers, that stretch into the (very) early hours. Cover and drinks are inexpensive, and the dancing is beautiful – though also complex, and would require at least a lesson or two to participate. Av Scalabrini Ortiz 1331, Palermo Viejo
Where to stay
Apartment rentals in B.A.'s diverse neighbourhoods are cheap. The site 4rentargentina.com has a variety of apartments for as low as $250 a week – take a cab there from the airport and you'll be handed the keys in person at the door.
You could buy leather loafers, among other leather things, on the city's uber-popular Florida Street, which alone is worth a visit for the performers (including tango, and, once, a female ska band). But you'd be better off hitting the small shops of Palermo Soho. Don't miss men's wear store Teranfor the impeccably handcrafted leather shoes and boots. Thames 1855, teranonline.com, 54-11-4831-7264
Where to start? Great restaurants dot the city. There's the luxurious Oviedo in Barrito Norte (dress up, and order the ceviche or the lamb shoulder); the fantastically molecular La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar in San Telmo (set menu, reservations and punctuality required); and then, as you might expect, there's steak – offered almost everywhere, but my favourite was on the sprawling, boisterous patio at La Cabrera, where the delicious beef came with mashed pumpkin
Editor's note: The opening paragraph originally said the sun was setting into the Rio de la Plata, an impossibility given that the sun rises over the Rio de la Plata every morning and sets in the west.