By Mark Chesnut
Two to Tango
The handsome young man pressed close to the older gentleman on Florida Street, their feet carefully intertwined, their hands clasped together. The music seemed to dictate precisely their every move. The young man’s steady gaze was focused, passionate, as he countered each step his companion made. Passersby on the street stopped and watched, smiling and clapping when they were done. In Buenos Aires, it’s not uncommon to see two men dance tango together. Even on busy pedestrian shopping streets in the center of town, people perform the dance that is synonymous with the city.
Born just before the turn of the 20th Century, the sensuous moves of tango were initially too scandalous for even female prostitutes, forcing men in the poorer immigrant neighborhoods to practice together.
After World War I, the dance started to catch on internationally, helped in no small part by the silky voice of Carlos Gardel, the nation’s most popular tango singer. Whether he was gay or not is still open to debate, but the music and dance he helped make famous continue as a tradition in Argentina’s capital—and today you can even enjoy it in an ever-increasing gay environment.
Paris of Latin America
“The Paris of Latin America has everything, and at less than half the price of any top city in the world,” according to Facundo Yebne, manager of Friendly Apartments, a gay apartment rental service. “You can go to a stylish restaurant with first-class service and good wine for $10 to $15. You can marvel at an opera at one of the best theaters of the world, the Teatro Colón, for $5 to $35.”
Indeed, after years as one of the most expensive destinations in Latin America, Argentina suffered an economic collapse in 2001. One of the few positive things to come from the nation’s economic difficulties has been the explosive growth of tourism, which has helped to stabilize parts of the economy and grow some businesses.
A more favorable exchange rate has encouraged visitors to finally get to know the “Paris of Latin America” — a fact eagerly promoted by anyone even remotely involved with the local travel industry. Like Yebne, other local Porteños are quick to note that Buenos Aires is now an ideal vacation destination. Vacationers who’d only dreamed of staying in five-star hotels can afford a luxury vacation in a European-style capital city, at half the price.
This opportunity hasn’t been lost on gay and lesbian travelers, who enjoy the city’s sophisticated infrastructure of gay-owned and gay-friendly accommodations, restaurants, nightlife, and stores.
“We’re the number one gay destination in Latin America now,” claims Kevin Rodriguez, the New Jersey-born owner of Empire Thai, a trendy restaurant in the center of Buenos Aires. “We beat Rio. We used to be too expensive, but now everyone’s been to Rio and Buenos Aires is cheap.”
A North American expat, Rodriguez moved from New Jersey to Buenos Aires in 1996, after working for years in New York City’s banking industry. He’d already visited Buenos Aires and liked it so much he decided to call it home. About three years ago, he opened Empire Thai, a gay-friendly restaurant/bar in the city center whose name and logo are a nod to his U.S. roots. Rodriguez decided the city needed an upscale Thai restaurant because in general, Porteños “eat the three p’s: pasta, pizza, and parrilla [grilled beef]. They needed something a little different here.” Rodriguez loves his life in Buenos Aires—the people, the culture, the history, and, he adds enthusiastically: “Have you seen the men here?”
Buenos Aires wasn’t always a magnet for gay vacationers. For nearly 300 years after its founding in the 1500’s, it barely attracted the attention of straight people either, taking a backseat to more important centers of trade in the Spanish empire. In 1776 Buenos Aires became the capital of the new Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, and after Argentina’s independence from Spain in 1816 began its climb to become one of the wealthiest cities in the hemisphere. During the 1930’s, colonial-era streets disappeared as the government sought to create European-style grandeur with wide boulevards and sweeping vistas that still exist today.
The following years brought dramatic ups and downs. A series of military coups in 1943 and 1944 led to the rise of Col. Juan Domingo Perón, whose popularity with the working class was boosted by the charisma of his wife Eva, a minor actress with humble roots (Evita was her nickname).
Perón’s presidency, which began in 1946, was marked by the nationalization of many resources and the initiation of populist programs to help the poor, coupled with restriction of free speech and the suppression of critics. Evita expressed an interest in holding political office, but died in 1952 at age 33. Still loved by many, her image can be seen throughout the city.
Perón’s next wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón, actually achieved some of Evita’s goals, but without the public admiration. Peronism, as her husband’s political approach was named, sharply divided the nation, but continued to enjoy support even after a military coup overthrew Perón in 1955. Perón returned from exile in 1973 to resume as president, with Isabel as vice president. After he died in 1974, Isabel became the nation’s first female president (and the first to have started out as a cabaret dancer), but Isabel’s presidency lasted only until 1976 when she was deposed by a military junta, detained for five years, and then sent into exile where she still lives today.
Isabel’s overthrow was followed by one of the darkest periods in the nation’s history. Military leaders began what is known as the “Dirty War,” banning the free press, political parties, and worker strikes, and dissolving the Congress. As many as 30,000 political opponents disappeared. My friend Ivan, who traveled to Buenos Aires frequently in the 1970’s, told me how it was not uncommon for a black Ford Falcon to stop in front of an expensive restaurant as military operatives would swoop in, forcibly and silently remove one of the restaurant’s patrons, and disappear into the night.
The military dictatorship, which faced ever-decreasing public support, ended with the democratic election of Raúl Alfonsín as president in 1983. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that President Fernando de la Rúa finally purged the army and state intelligence agency of the last suspected participants in the Dirty War. Still, to this day, many of the disappeared are unaccounted for. Aging mothers and grandmothers still march with photos of their missing relatives. The period remains a painful part of Argentina’s recent history, and debate continues about how best to commemorate the missing.
By 2001, inflation and unemployment were wreaking havoc on the country and crowds rushed local banks as depositors frantically attempted to access their money. Nationwide food riots and demonstrations led president Fernando de la Rúa to resign.
It wasn’t until 2003, when Nestor Carlos Kirchner was elected president, that the economy began showing some signs of stabilization. Kirchner succeeded in gaining favorable terms from the International Monetary Fund for refinancing Argentina’s debt. Unemployment sank from nearly 20 percent to about 13 percent. While predictions for the future are bright, the state of the economy remains at the forefront of Argentina’s problems.
To find out more about Argentina’s complex history and current political climate, check out The Argentina Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela R. Montaldo (Duke University Press, 2003) and Buenos Aires: A Cultural and Literary Companion by Jason Wilson (Interlink Books, 1999).
In the Streets Today
At first I don’t notice that the guy who is showing us to our table at La Barbería, a sidewalk restaurant dating to 1927, has finely plucked eyebrows and a rather feminine gait. By the time I do, “Moira” is already mentioning that he sometimes does drag shows at this old-fashioned restaurant in the neighborhood called La Boca. “But I don’t do shows right now, because I’ve gotten chubby,” he says, so instead we watch an attractive male-female couple ply the wooden dance floor as we enjoy gourmet pizza under the springtime sun.
Whether or not Moira is performing, La Boca is one of the neighborhoods that you must visit to get a sense of the history of Buenos Aires, a sprawling metropolis that today boasts some 12 million inhabitants. A port area where many Italian immigrants arrived decades ago, it is today a touristy place with vendors creating hand-painted artwork and cotton and silk scarves in front of brightly painted buildings.
Many of the sites in Buenos Aires can be seen on foot or on gay-friendly guided tours. Pride Travel, founded in 2003 by travel expert Carlos Melía, is one of the gay-owned companies offering a variety of packages and services to gay and lesbian travelers. A true entrepreneur, Meliá seems to have his finger on the pulse of just about everything in gay Buenos Aires. “Buenos Aires has something for everyone,” he tells me, and his business ventures make it easier to find what you’re looking for; he also works as an independent tour guide and publishes La Ronda, a handy, free, pocket guide to gay life in the city.
Since I’d already visited several times before, I decided to take my boyfriend on a self-guided tour using inexpensive black-and-yellow taxis. Many destinations in the city can be reached for $2 or less (the taxi drivers here do not expect tips, although most people will round up a bit as a sign of appreciation). Another good transportation option is the city’s efficient Subte (subway) system, which costs less than 70 cents.
From La Boca, it’s a short taxi ride to San Telmo, a neighborhood with narrow cobbled streets lined with countless antique shops. We take a seat at an outdoor café on the plaza and enjoy some live music before continuing our exploration. One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, San Telmo also has interesting restaurants including La Farmacia, a funky, gay-friendly place with original art hanging on the walls. San Telmo is also home to Lugar Gay, the creatively remodeled gay men’s B&B that sometimes hosts gay tango classes.
From San Telmo we taxi over to Puerto Madero, the attractively redeveloped waterfront mostly filled with upscale restaurants, offices, and apartments.
In the very center of the city are some of the most popular sites. The Plaza de Mayo is a city square anchored by the Casa Rosada (Pink House), the presidential palace from which Evita once spoke to the people of Argentina. It houses an interesting museum dedicated to presidential history. The Catedral Metropolitano (Metropolitan Cathedral), which looks more like a bank from the outside, has an ornate interior and the tomb of General San Martín, liberator of Argentina. After paying our respects, we walk a few blocks to Café Tortoni, an historic and beautiful coffee shop that dates to 1858.
Avenida 9 de Julio, the city’s immensely wide main boulevard, impresses even repeat visitors. It is accented by the Obelisco (Obelisk), which was erected in 1936. Just a few steps away is the Teatro Colón (Colón Theater), a stately structure that hosts world-class operas and other performances.
Evita-philes will want to customize their visit to include the Museo Evita (Evita Museum), which opened recently in a lovely building that once housed a branch of the Eva Perón Social Aid Foundation. Today, it features exhibits that trace the former first lady’s life from her beginnings as an illegitimate child through her rise as an actress and president’s wife.
After the museum, an appropriate stop is the lovely neighborhood called Recoleta. Here, you’ll find the Cementerio La Recoleta, the cemetery where the remains of Evita (as well as many other prominent members of Argentinian society) are kept in stunningly ornate mausoleums that rise like marble homes along narrow walkways. Just outside the cemetery gates you can wander streets lined with elegant, French-style mansions constructed by wealthy families who fled San Telmo during a yellow-fever epidemic in the 1870’s. Peek into Nuestra Señora del Pilar, one of the city’s oldest churches, and the lovely Palais de Glace (Ice Palace), built in the early 1900’s as an ice skating rink, which now hosts exhibits and events.
Also in the neighborhood is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Fine Arts Museum),Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo (National Museum of Decorative Arts) is sumptuously housed in a French classical mansion and boasts more than 4,000 pieces of European and Asian pieces.
which features among its permanent exhibits the María Luisa Bemberg Collection, 27 paintings and sculptures by artists from the region. The nearby
Among the other museums worth visiting is the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano (often called simply MALBA), a sleek facility, open since 2001, that exhibits the work of artists from around the hemisphere. MALBA is home to the Constantini Collection—a collection of more than 200 works from 78 Latin American artists. Temporary exhibits highlight other artists in a variety of media.
For a quiet break from the bustling streets of Buenos Aires, head to the neighborhood called Palermo
where the huge Palermo Park is home to a Japanese garden, a zoo, and the interesting modern architecture of the Galileo Galilei Planetarium.
Shopping in Buenos Aires
Shopping in Buenos Aires can be a time-consuming experience, what with all the neighborhoods devoted to the pastime. Antiques, leather goods, and clothing are among the finds—and while you won’t find too many obviously gay-owned businesses, it’s easy to find shops stocked with items of interest to gay and lesbian travelers.
Argentina is famous for its leather goods, and one of the best places to pick up top-of-the-line items is Casa López on Calle M.T. de Alvear in Palermo. Here, you can shop for clothing and accessories. The size of your checked baggage may limit how much antiquing you can do in Buenos Aires, but it’s still fun to check out the treasures in the San Telmo area. Be sure to visit Galería el Solar de French on Calle Defensa, an interesting antiques gallery housed in what was once the home of Argentine patriot Patricio Domingo Mariano French.
Another good gallery nearby is the Pasaje de la Defensa, and every Sunday the Plaza Dorrego hosts the open-air Feria de San Pedro Telmo where every imaginable piece of history is on sale.
To pick up a book in English or Spanish visit El Ateneo, a lovely large bookstore housed in a former 1919 theater that screened the city’s first motion picture with sound in 1929. Located on Santa Fe in La Recoleta, the ornately detailed palace also has a lovely café.
Santa Fe is a good street to wander for name-brand clothing and shoes, and here you’ll find a few gay-owned stores specializing in men’s clothing and sexy undergear. For the latest look, pop into the fitting rooms at Narciso and Full Bodies.
To get a taste of downtown shopping, head to Calle Florida, a bustling street that has been dedicated to pedestrians only since 1913. Hundreds of shops in every price category line this popular street.
Even some of the malls in Buenos Aires are architectural standouts. On Calle Florida you’ll find Galerías Pacífico, which was built in 1889 as railroad offices and splendidly repurposed in recent years to host upscale clothing stores and boutiques in the style of Milan’s Gallerie Vittorio Emanuele. The small tourism stand here also stocks free gay travel maps.
Buenos Aires has a wide variety of high-quality hotels at reasonable prices. During this visit, my boyfriend Angel and I stayed at Hotel Design Suites, a slender property that is minimalist and trendy, but not super-luxurious, with glass counters and stainless-steel sinks in the bathrooms. The mirrored lobby, accented with dramatic white furniture and a long reflecting pool, is used for fashion shoots and TV interviews.
The newest entrant in the trendy category is Faena Hotel + Universe, created by former fashion designer Alan Faena and interior designer Philippe Starck. Its décor features velvet curtains and dark woods, and the hotel’s “experience managers” arrange customized tours focusing on arts and antiques, photography, polo, tango, and other topics.
On the more traditional front is the Alvear Palace, one of the top properties in the city. Its pricey rooms feature private butlers. Other outstanding choices include the InterContinental Buenos Aires, a top-notch, classically elegant property in the heart of town, and the Crowne Plaza Buenos Aires Panamericano which has lovely hardwood floors and enjoys prized views of Avenida 9 de Julio, the city’s widest avenue, as well as the landmark obelisk, which you can photograph from the rooftop pool.
Buenos Aires also has an extensive collection of gay-specific smaller hotels and lodging options. Lugar Gay, for example, is a pleasantly small, men-only bed-and-breakfast (it even hosts gay tango classes). Friendly Apartments offers short-term rentals of fully furnished units with housekeeping and other services in some of the most gay-popular neighborhoods. Even Howard Johnson has joined the gay bandwagon with a marketing company offering packages at its properties that include admission to gay nightclubs, as well as gay guides.
Nights During the Week
Five dollars will buy you eight questions at Astrobar, a trendy restaurant with its own fortuneteller on staff.
The flickering candle is reflected in the champagne bubbles rising in the glass. Marta stares at the fizz, then looks up at me. “You are going to travel a lot, to several continents,” she tells me in Spanish, as she frowns at the worn tarot cards in on the table. Sounds good to me, I think.
At Astrobar, not only can you have your fortune told, you can dine on artfully presented, astrologically themed nouveau cuisine and drinks. Angel begins with a Geminis, which is peach liqueur, triple sec, and grapefruit juice—delicious, and less than $3. He follows it with a Saturno (Saturn), chicken satay with rice pilaf. I chose the Luna (the moon), which is trout with black oil for only about $7.
The city’s hip neighborhoods are dotted with these types of trendy, creative, gay-friendly restaurants, making every hunger craving a potentially interesting experience.
I probably should have asked Marta if I would ever be able to visit every single gay-friendly establishment. The answer would most likely have been no. Well-organized maps and guides are available everywhere, including the local tourist offices, but they list so many restaurants, bars, hotels, and stores that it would take weeks to get to know them all. Luckily, this was my fourth visit, and I had the help of several locals to point me in the right direction.
Marta scribbles on a piece of paper and hands it to me as I leave. “Call me if you have any questions.” Then we are off to discover the current nightlife scene.
Monday is the quietest night, and we found the only real place to go is Titanic, a small basement bar with décor loosely inspired by the movie of the same name—including a vaguely ship-like bar with giant anchor and a huge wall mural of Leonardo DiCaprio. The pleasant staff is helpful with nightlife suggestions, and we decide to return the following night for one of their signature, bizarrely-themed stripper shows, all of which tie in with a Hollywood blockbuster. We witness their rendition of Chicago, during which a scantily clad transvestite lip-synchs a Spanish-language version of the song “He Had It Coming,” followed by a brief dance by the man who’d done her wrong (dressed in black hat, white cuffs, tie, and tight shorts), after which he whips off his g-string for a split-second view of his erect penis before she symbolically kills him with a fake knife.
Tuesday offers one of several opportunities to attend a gay milonga, or tango dance party. Besos Brujos, set in a colorfully painted former church, hosts a gay night on Tuesdays, with a practice session followed by a live show and open dancing.
On Thursday we head to Glam, which in spite of the name is not overly glamorous. It’s still fun though—a small dance club that attracts mostly men. The compact dance floor gets packed as the evening progresses, and the patio offers a nice place to relax.
I’ve spent many happy hours in the gay clubs in Buenos Aires, and I’m not even that much of a night owl. During the weekend, we visit Amérika, a massive dance club that attracts gay and straight patrons, both male and female. Here, we alternate dancing on the main dance floor, the oddly glass-enclosed dance floor on the second floor (which has its own DJ), and the third level dance floor which spins mostly Spanish-language dance music. Beefy security guards prevent women from accidentally entering the men’s room, which leads beyond to a massive darkroom.
This visit is also my first chance to check out Palacio Buenos Aires, just a block from the hotel InterContinental Buenos Aires. Housed in an historic, 19th-Century building, the Palacio is a beautiful, multilevel place with good DJs and a fun crowd. We pay $5 to get in on Friday (which includes all you can drink) and head upstairs to one of the lounges, complete with ornate, wrought-iron balconies, to watch the people dancing below.
GAY GROUPS & INFORMATION
BueGay Argentina. Tel: 4184-8290. Travel agency that offers customized gay packages. www.buegay.com.ar
The Gay Guide. English-language website with lots of listings. www.thegayguide.com.ar
My Paradigma. Tel: 5022-5349. Carlos Meliá, owner of Pride Travel, also works as a gay independent travel agent and guide via www.carlosmelia.com.ar. Meliá also publishes The Ronda, one of the city’s best free gay pocket guides. www.theronda.com.ar
Nexo, Callao 339 Piso 5. Tel: 4375-0359. Gay and lesbian organization that offers services related to gay rights, HIV/AIDS, and other issues. www.nexo.org
Pride Travel, Paraguay 523 2do E. Tel: 5218-6556. Gay and lesbian travel agency and information center specializing in gay Buenos Aires. www.pride-travel.com
Story By Mark Chesnut
Posted on GlobalGayz without permission