Of all South America’s capitals, Buenos Aires – aka Capital Federal, Baires, BsAs or simply BA – has the most going for it. Seductive and cultured, sophisticated yet earthy, eclectic but with a strong identity, it never bores, seldom sleeps and invariably mesmerizes its visitors. Influenced by the great European cities, Buenos Aires nonetheless has its own distinct personality enhanced by proud traditions, including football, tango and mate. On one flank lap the caramel-hued waters of the Río de la Plata, the world’s widest estuary: signs of BA’s regained prosperity include the wharves stacked high with containers and the ever-busier cruise-ship terminus. To the west and south, the verdant Pampas – historically the source of the city’s food and wealth – meld seamlessly into its vast suburbs.
Modern Buenos Aires enjoys an incomparable lifestyle. Elegant restaurants, glamorous bars, historic cafés and heaving nightclubs, plus a world-class opera house, countless theatres, multiscreen cinemas, avant-garde galleries and French-style palaces all underscore its attachment to the arts and its eternal sense of style. Its proud inhabitants, known as Porteños, are notoriously extravagant and well groomed but they are also hospitable and eager to show visitors around. Another boon are the parks and gardens and the abundance of trees lining the streets and providing shade in the many lively plazas that dot the huge conurbation; they add welcome splashes of colour, particularly when ablaze with yellow, pink and mauve blooms in spring and, in some cases, autumn, too. The squadrons of squawky parrots and vociferous songbirds that populate the greenery help visitors forget that this is the fifth-largest conurbation in the Americas: there are nearly fourteen million inhabitants in the Gran Buenos Aires area, which spills well beyond the city’s defining boundary of multi-lane ring roads into Buenos Aires Province.
On the map and from the air the metropolis does look dauntingly huge, yet the compact centre and relative proximity of all the main sights mean that you don’t have to travel that much to gain an overview. Of the city’s 48 barrios you will most probably be visiting only the half-dozen most central. The city centre (basically San Nicolás and Monserrat) is mostly a hectic place, particularly during the week and along pedestrianized Calle Florida, but the fin-de-siècle elegance of Avenida de Mayo and the bohemian café culture of Avenida Corrientes offer a contrasting atmosphere. Beyond the converted docklands of Puerto Madero, east of downtown, lies the unexpectedly wild Reserva Ecológica, one of the city’s green lungs.
The older south of the city begins just beyond the central Plaza de Mayo. The narrow streets are lined with some of the capital’s finest architecture, typified by late nineteenth-century townhouses with ornate Italianate facades. Increasingly gentrified, San Telmo is primarily known for its cutting-edge artists, lively antiques fair and touristy tango haunts, while resolutely working-class Boca, further south, is so inextricably linked with its football team, Boca Juniors, that many of its buildings are painted blue and yellow. The north of the city is leafier and wealthier; you can ogle the French-style palaces of Retiro, stay in one of the top-end hotels of Recoleta or head to Palermo to shop or dine or just to wander the streets. Most of the city museums are clustered in the northern barrios, with themes as varied as Latin American art, mate cups and Eva Perón.
Buenos Aires was named in honour of Nuestra Señora de Santa María de los Buenos Ayres, provider of the good wind, the patron saint of the Spanish sailors who first landed on the banks of the Río de la Plata estuary in 1516. The first successful settlement came in 1580, but though the Spanish found the horses and cattle that they brought over from Europe thrived, the fertility of the land made little impression on them. They were more interested in precious metals, and named the settlement’s river the Plata (silver) in the belief that it flowed from the lands of silver and gold in the Andes.
Expansion was slow, however, and Buenos Aires remained a distant outpost of the Spanish-American empire for the next two centuries, with smuggling being the mainstay of the local economy. In 1776, in an attempt to shore up its empire, Spain gave the Argentine territories Viceroyalty status, with Buenos Aires as the capital. It was too little, too late: boosted by the defeat of two attempted British invasions, the people of the Viceroyalty declared independence in 1810, freeing the area from the last vestiges of colonial hindrance.
Immigration and growth
The industrial revolution gave Buenos Aires the opportunity to exploit and export the great riches of the Pampas, thanks to technological advances such as railways and refrigeration – which enabled Europeans to dine on Argentine beef for the first time. Few cities in the world have experienced a period of such astonishing growth as that which spurred Buenos Aires between 1870 and 1914. Massive foreign investment – most notably from the British – poured into the city and Buenos Aires’ stature leapt accordingly. European immigrants, over half of whom were Italians, flocked to the capital, and the city’s population doubled between 1880 and 1890. Most of the old town was razed and an eclectic range of new buildings went up in a huge grid pattern. The standard of living of Buenos Aires’ middle class equalled or surpassed that of many European countries, while the incredible wealth of the city’s elite was almost without parallel anywhere. At the same time, however, much of the large working-class community endured appalling conditions in the city’s overcrowded conventillos, or tenement buildings.
By the mid-twentieth century the period of breakneck development had come to a close as the country slid into political turmoil and economic crisis. In September 1945, Buenos Aires saw the first of what was to become a regular fixture – a massive demonstration that filled the city centre. Rallies of almost religious fervour in support of Perón and his wife Evita, who came out onto the balcony of the Casa Rosada to deliver their speeches, followed at regular intervals until Evita’s death and Perón’s deposition. The long years of military dictatorship that followed saw the city in lockdown, with the mothers of the disappeared one of the few visible signs of the turmoil underneath the surface. Since the return to democracy in 1982, Buenos Aires has been the most visible face of the country’s economic rollercoaster. The temporary stabilization of the currency in the 1990s brought a new upsurge in spending by those who could afford it – smart new shopping malls, restaurants and cinema complexes sprung up around the city. But Buenos Aires entered the twenty-first century in retreat, as a grinding recession led to weeks of protests and looting that came to a horrendous head in December 2001, when widespread rioting led to dozens of deaths. Demonstrations and roadblocks by unemployed piqueteros became part of the fabric of everyday life in the city during the messy recovery that followed, with the sad sight of cartoneros rooting through rubbish the most obvious example of the economic problems, and growing crime an inevitable offshoot of this rise in poverty.
As the focus of national bicentenary celebrations in 2010 – and despite some backwash from the global financial crisis – Buenos Aires is mostly in good shape. Long overdue repairs have been carried out, welfare plans have reduced (though not eradicated) the worst poverty and international tourism continues to be an engine of growth, leading to the opening of new gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels every week. Problems remain – traffic, crime, shantytowns, flooding in big storms, power outages and the still frequent roadblocks – but Buenos Aires seems confident of its future, led by an ambitious mayor who has his eye on the presidency.