BUENOS AIRES—Drift off during an eight-hour flight from Miami and by morning you can wake up in Buenos Aires, a vibrant city of some 12 million people (when you include the metropolitan area) and one of the best travel bargains in the world.
Buenos Aires is highly literate, highly Catholic, the most European city outside of Europe, and the most culturally cosmopolitan city in Latin America. But stay here for a while (I've been here a month), and you'll find some interesting contrasts and hints that things aren't always as they seem.
It is, for example, an energetic, bustling, harried city teeming with commerce, art galleries, high-end restaurants, and dance clubs. Porteños (what residents call themselves—"the port people") generally don't eat dinner until 10 p.m. They hit the bars at midnight and then the clubs, most of which don't even open until 2 a.m.
But for a city so alive, Buenos Aires is also obsessed with and haunted by its dead. One of the major tourist attractions is the cemetery in Recoleta, where Argentina's rich and famous are interred in gaudy mausoleums, a kind of post-mortem affirmation of the dramatic gap between the country's elites and its poor.
Down by the airport, vacant Navy warehouses look ominously over the city's slums. Locals will tell you the buildings were the sites of the torture of thousands of dissidents during Argentina's period of military rule from 1976 to 1983. Many were drugged, put on planes, and—still alive—simply pushed off into the Atlantic Ocean.
It's still a sore subject in Argentina. It's spoken of in hushed tones. Mothers of "the disappeared" still protest weekly in the federal plaza, clutching posters of missing kin. On a bus from the industrial city of Neuquem to the wine-making city of Mendoza, I met an elderly British-Canadian man who claims to spend his free time—still today—investigating the thousands of government-ordered murders. There are many vigilante investigators just like him.
There are few indigenous South Americans in Buenos Aires. The city's architecture, cuisine, and culture teem wih European influence, and most of the city is of European descent, predominantly Spanish and Italian, but also German, Portuguese, French, and British, with a rising immigrant population from neighboring Latin American countries.
Yet despite Buenos Aires' proud "melting pot" demographics, there's also strong sentiment to preserve Argentine culture from outside influences. Expectant parents, for example, must choose their baby's name from a list of sufficiently Argentine names pre-approved by the government.
You'll find comparatively few multinational brands here (there isn't a single Starbucks). Many companies familiar to Americans will spin off Argentine-sounding brands, in an appeal to nativist consumer sentiment.
Argentina is one of the more thoroughly Catholic countries in the world. More than 90 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, and the country's constitution requires that its government support the Roman Catholic Church. But many (if not most) are non-practicing. And the church's influence on the country's public policy has had some interesting effects.
The country's stringent divorce laws, for example, have fostered cottage industries such as telos, rent-by-the-hour sex hotels where cheating spouses rendezvous with lovers, or single Argentines from their teens to their thirties (who typically live with their parents until married) meet for carnal pre-marital relations.
Low-end telos can be as seedy as you might expect, but there are cleaner, higher-end spots, too, and discreetly reserving one has become fairly common, particularly in larger cities like Buenos Aires.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It since has endured decades of bad government, including the rudderless reactionary populist appeal of Peronism (which still dominates the county's politics today), the military junta in the 1970s and '80s, and consistently bad economic policy that culminated in the country's financial collapse in 2001.
The economy is recovering, but it's clear that most Argentines don't have much faith that it will last. Many feel that the government is being dishonest about its economic data—or just making it up. One Argentine woman told me that though the government insists there's no inflation, the same pay that bought a cartful of groceries two months ago now buys just two bags.
Durable goods and long-term purchases usually are made with U.S. dollars, not Argentine pesos, a good indicator that Argentines aren't ready to trust their own currency. Most retail and service business will also give you a discount if you pay in cash instead of credit.