Argentina: Winter Warmth, Affordable Luxury

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- The key to surviving winter in the Northeast -- and last year's was a doozy -- is the body's natural response to any threat: fight or flight. At some point, you either have to dig your heels in and embrace the season -- skiing and sledding, sipping hot cocoa by a roaring fire, building a snowman -- or escape to someplace warm where you can charge your solar battery.

In 2010, my wife and I celebrated the cold with a trip north to Montreal. This past year, though, we decided to get the hell out.
There is indeed tango in Argentina, and the couples dancing in the street can be a better show than visitors get at expensive nightclubs.

But to where? Our top priority -- besides that pair of perennial constraints, time and money -- was to exchange our frozen 4 p.m. sunsets for long, balmy days, ideally in a place with a cultural heartbeat. We settled on Argentina.

While heading south to escape winter is a time-honored tradition, chances are you're not thinking that far south. Fewer than 500,000 Americans visit Argentina each year, according to the U.S. State Department, compared with the nearly 4 million of us who vacation in the Bahamas annually.

But if you prefer cobblestone streets to sandy beaches and art galleries to T-shirt huts, you may want to consider Argentina. Heat-seeking travelers undaunted by a longer flight and a little bit of Spanish are well rewarded by world-class restaurants, colonial architecture, natural beauty and a celebrated wine region. With its cosmopolitan culture and relatively stable government -- though inflation continues to run high, with official estimates near 10% -- it offers something like a midsummer European vacation in January.

And so, after a 10-hour nonstop flight from JFK, we found ourselves in sunny Buenos Aires, Argentina, where it was 90 degrees out just a week after New Year's.

When Paris met Mexico
Travel guides love to call Buenos Aires "The Paris of South America," and with good reason: the city teems with cafe culture, trendy nightclubs, fashionable stores and gourmet restaurants. But underneath it all is a slight feeling of lawlessness, evident in the ubiquitous graffiti, the stray (but friendly) dogs and the locked iron gates.

So yes, Paris is a fair comparison; but picture Paris in Mexico.

We stayed in Palmero, an upscale neighborhood akin to Boston's South End, where all the trendy restaurants and bars spring up. Within blocks of our B&B in every direction were cafes with outdoor seating serving 1-liter bottles of Quilmes (the prevalent domestic beer -- buy a large bottle and share it), daily specials and cheap empanadas: meat- or cheese-filled pastries that, at about $1 each, make a perfect afternoon snack. (And snacking is a must when most restaurants don't serve dinner until at least 9 p.m.)

On our first night, after an early evening nap to shake our jet lag, we wandered down the street and found ourselves lured in by the menu at Impetu Bistro. Maybe it's because it was our first real meal below the equator, but we would talk about it for weeks.

My wife got homemade pumpkin ravioli in a mushroom cream sauce, and I ordered the first of what would be many filet mignons, called bife de lomo. The two gorgeous filets, encrusted in peppercorn and cooked to perfection, were just under a pound of the best steak I've ever had. We also ordered a midrange bottle of Malbec, which we lingered over until about midnight -- when many local patrons were just arriving for dinner.

The price of this extravagant meal, one of the top five I've ever had? $48 for the two of us, including tip.

In the market for an old singer?
On Sunday, we headed downtown to the legendary Feria de San Telmo. I love a good street market -- Portobello Road in London perhaps being the gold standard -- and this one didn't disappoint. Officially centered around Plaza Dorego in San Telmo, but stretching north on Defensa for nearly a mile, it makes for hours of eye-popping ambling.

As we meandered from stall to stall, we loaded up on small gifts we could easily take home -- trinkets and scarves, handmade stuff you might find on Etsy for three or four times the price, and a couple of beautiful prints. Talented buskers and fresh-squeezed orange juice stands ($2) dotted the sidewalks every few blocks.

Plaza Dorego, the focal point of the market, is all about antiques. If we lived nearby I wouldn't be able to resist stopping by every Sunday to sift through the old glass bottles and vintage desks. But we weren't about to lug a 90-year-old Singer sewing machine around for the rest of our trip, no matter how cool it was.

Instead, we caught a couple of porteños (BA locals) dancing the tango in the square. Tango, probably the country's most famous export, is everywhere, and it's easy enough to see a good performance for free. By late afternoon on market days, dancers often take over a portion of the plaza and perform for tips. And at El Balcon across the street, you can catch free tango shows on Sunday if you stop in for a (slightly overpriced) drink or meal.

Later in the week, we felt we should see some 'real' tango -- that is, performed on stage, by pros at the beautiful, historic Cafe Tortini -- and that was a disappointment. The singer behaved and sounded like a game show host, and there were more costume changes than dance routines.

Dying art form
One of the city's tourism treasures is the Recoleta Cemetery, a sprawling, citylike grid of ornate mausoleums. Sounds macabre, I know, but it's actually a beautiful site. A labyrinth of wide boulevards and narrow alleyways houses the former elite of Buenos Aires -- this is the final resting place of Eva "Evita" Peron and her family, and other famous Argentine presidents and poets -- and each family's crypt is a meticulously designed architectural gem in miniature. It's like a tiny upscale neighborhood for tasteful dead people.

At the entrance, you'll find a map of the cemetery, so you can locate notable families. Evita's tomb attracts a relentless crowd, but we eventually got up close to pay our respects before exploring more tranquil areas. As serene a stroll as the cemetery makes, it is still a bit eerie; in one newer, glass-encased crypt, you could clearly see the spiral staircase that led down, through a door in the floor, into ... you know ... where the bodies are, presumably. Creepy!
Beunas Aires' Recoleta Cemetery is a sprawling, citylike grid of ornate mausoleums hosting the remains of Argentina's most famous residents.

Chocolate and wine
Each evening, we passed by an inviting restaurant called Lele de Troya, where people ate outdoors beneath a leafy, arched trellis on the sidewalk. We finally decided to go in -- and it was perhaps the most romantic dinner of our lives.

We sat on a cozy sofa by the window, bathed in candlelight in a room painted a deep, ruby red -- a shade that can only be called luxurious. The windows were taller than even the towering panes of our old Back Bay apartment, and the massive doors, tables and bar were made of warm, weathered wood.

My seafood risotto was delicious, but my wife ordered the cordero (lamb) with chocolate Malbec sauce. It was every bit as good as you're imagining; neither of us has ever tasted something so unforgettable. The wine was, as we'd come to expect, a velvety bargain by the bottle, and the dessert we split afterward was delicious.

But even now, months later, I still daydream about that lamb in chocolate Malbec sauce.

Mendoza: Mountains, Malbec and more meat
From Buenos Aires we flew west to Mendoza, a laid-back city in the foothills of the Andes and the wine capital of Argentina. We stayed in a private room at the Hostel Lao, where it was hard not to relax. There were hammocks, shade trees and a small pool in the backyard, where mellow music played as afternoons melted into evenings. At 8 p.m., the hostel staff would open a bottle or two of local wine for everyone to taste and share. And a fridge by the front desk was stocked with bottles of inexpensive beer, juice, and water that you could charge to your room at any time.

The staff were extremely friendly and helpful, and it was here that we realized the hosts at our Buenos Aires B&B were a little more hands-off than we'd have liked. The hostel staff knew every bus route in the city -- helping us with the logistics of any excursion we could dream up -- and filled up a chalkboard by the front desk each day with things to do, from free tango lessons to live music and happy hour spots off the tourist path.

A hostel is not for everybody, so better-heeled visitors might opt for the Park Hyatt Mendoza. Set in a stately, beautiful building smack in the center of town at the top of the Plaza Independencia, the Hyatt boasts multiple restaurants as well as a wine tasting bar, casino and top-notch spa where you can treat yourself to a "Wine Body Glow" package.
A three-hour, six-course meal including filet mignon and a variety of wines costs $30 and tip in Mendoza, a laid-back city in the foothills of the Andes.

On our first full day, at the hostel's suggestion, we took a local bus -- for about $1-- to Cavas de Chacras, a boutique winery about 40 minutes outside the city, to try their wine-tasting menu. Holy. Awesome.

We were seated outside, next to a koi pond, and over the course of three hours, our waitress served us an indulgent six-course meal (culminating in filet mignon, naturally), with a new -- and quite full -- glass of wine to accompany each course. What's more, they were sold out of some midrange wines, so for the last two pairings they had to crack into their premium line, bottles of which (our waitress said) sell for upward of $200 in the U.S.

The whole experience came to just $30 each plus tip. (For four times the price you can take more official, hotel-arranged tasting tours that herd you like Argentine cattle to the more prominent wineries, which are stingier with their samples.)

The bus was a good idea, because after six glasses of wine in the desert heat we were in no condition to drive. Buses, though, require change -- monedas -- and there is a shortage of coins in Argentina. We didn't have enough left for both of our fares back into town. We asked our waitress for change; she had none. She asked the kitchen staff, who wrangled up a few coins, but not enough. So we boarded the bus, and, playing the oblivious tourists, pretended to pay for two tickets at the on-board machine and hoped for the best. Thankfully, we managed to get back to Mendoza without any problem.

A song before we go
After making daytrips into the mountains and to a couple more wineries, it was time to head back to Buenos Aires, where we had booked one last Saturday night before our flight home the next day. Since it was our last night in South America, we splurged on a nicer B&B, the Posada Palermo, which was well worth the money -- even if we didn't spend much time in the room.

When we arrived, just before midnight, the host was waiting up for us. He noticed my guitar and mentioned that after he checked us in he was going to La Pena del Colorado to join the musicians who play together on weekend nights after the official performance (read: tourist show) wraps up. He graciously invited us along for a night I'll never forget.

Flocks of tourists were on their way out the door as the band members packed up their gear on stage. We sat at a table, ordered dinner, and before we knew it the room across from us came to life. When we finished eating, we squeezed in among musicians young and old, who passed around guitars -- pulled down from the restaurant's walls -- and wine -- which flowed freely all night -- while singing their hearts out to traditional tango and folk songs.

We were welcomed into the group with enthusiasm, and befriended by one of the younger musicians named Diego, a soulful singer who played both piano and guitar -- the latter with a lit cigarette wedged into the headstock. He spoke the best English of the group, but in a kind of twangy accent; it turned out he had fallen in love with a girl from the American South, and it was she, Johnny Cash and John Denver who taught him English.

I was warmly encouraged to play some American songs that everyone knew, and music was still pouring out the windows when we left at 3 a.m. (Our B&B host stayed behind, and told us later that at around 6 a.m. the group finally disbanded... to go play somewhere else.) When we got back to our room, we stayed up as long as we could manage, trying to savor our luxurious accommodations and to polish off a bottle of wine that refused to fit into our suitcase.

When it was time to check out just a few hours later, the breakfast that awaited us downstairs was truly magnificent: homemade yogurt, bread and jams, fresh-squeezed orange juice, eggs cooked to order and dulce de leche -- milk caramel -- to spread on toast. We didn't want to leave, but at least we returned relaxed and recharged enough to confront the foot of snow that awaited us.

Things to know if you go
Due to the strong Italian influence throughout Argentina, you can find excellent homemade pasta in most restaurants (making it a surprisingly vegetarian-friendly destination, despite its deserved reputation for steak, steak and steak). Good gelato is also easy to come by.

When you sit down in a public place -- be it an outdoor restaurant or the subway -- don't be surprised if someone walks by and hands you something they're selling, or places it on your table. Simply ignore it, and he or she will circle back to pick it up in a minute or two (sometimes after a brief sales pitch to everyone within earshot). It's a touch annoying, but far less invasive than some of the beach vendors in Mexico, and we were never pressured or harassed.

As mentioned, there is a shortage of coins, so hold onto them if you intend to take a bus anywhere. Even if you try to break a bill by buying something small at a shop, the cashier may just hand you an assortment of penny candy in lieu of actual change, because he doesn't have any coins either.

Finally, Argentina's a very large country, which makes bouncing around time-consuming -- or expensive, if you're flying -- so you may not be able to fit in everything you'd like to. We were only able to scratch the surface on this visit, missing out on natural wonders like Iguazu Falls, Patagonia, and the penguins in Tierra del Fuego -- but we certainly plan on going back for more.

-- Written by Jon Gorey in Boston.

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