It was the hit musical about former Argentinian first lady Eva “Evita” Peron that first got the 10-year-old Michael Luongo hooked on the South American country . But it would be several decades before the adult Luongo got to pay his first call on Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires.
During that initial trip in 2000, Luongo discovered a vibrant and sensual city, a less discovered place that welcomed foreigners, yet harbored a political and social history as complex as its most famous cultural export –– the tango.
Luongo, the writer of the first Frommer’s Buenos Aires guidebook, would keep coming back as BA earned a rep as a city of grand boulevards and beautiful buildings that was suddenly affordable due to the country’s financial travails.
He’s now back in BA to work on the fourth edition of the Frommer’s book, which comes out in July. He recently took some time to offer his insights on the power that Evita and BA still exude.
For most people outside Argentina, Eva Peron and Buenos Aires are inextricably linked. Does Evita still cast a shadow over the city?
I’m a big Evita freak –– the biggest American Evita freak there is. I fell in love with the idea of Argentina when I was 10 and Evita came to Broadway. It was the only play I ever begged my mother to see.
If you’re here on July 26, the anniversary of the day Evita died, you see tens of thousands of people marching through the streets in commemoration of her. You see that she is still alive. However, you know that only half of the people love Evita, and she’s a dirty word for many people: the oligarchy, the well-to-do, the people of the [upscale] Recoleta and Palermo [neighborhoods].
Can you sum up BA’s appeal as a travel destination?
People who come here have a great time. Locals will go out of their way to point things out. Just asking someone where something is on a map might lead to a two-hour conversation over coffee.
I can’t downplay the fact that it’s a sensual city –– whether you’re gay, whether you’re straight, that sensuality is very important for a visitor. In that sense, it’s retaining a lot of its Italian-ness. That means it’s chaotic and things don’t always make sense.
Is it still a bargain for tourists, in the wake of Argentina’s latest financial crisis?
It’s still more affordable than Europe, but people have to be smarter about where they stay because the boutique hotels are getting really expensive, and not all of them are worth the money.
Some that have stayed around for a while, like Home Buenos Aires, are a good value for the money. That was one of the first ones that opened after the boom. They’re actually reduced some of their prices. I do worry that BA is pricing itself out of the market.
For restaurants, you can still eat for $25 a person at a steakhouse. That same meal three or four years ago would have been about $10.
Has the food scene evolved beyond the beef standard?
Since the peso crisis, there have been a lot of changes. Beef has become expensive, and not all of it is grass-fed.
A lot of high-end restaurants have opened with experimental cuisine, as well as vegetarian, sushi and Peruvian restaurants.
I like Parrilla La Cabrera, a steakhouse in Palermo Soho, and Bio Solo Organico, a vegetarian restaurant, and I really like the restaurants of Germán Martitegui –– Tegui and Casa Cruz. They’re very expensive, and some people think they’re very snobby, but I think they’re very inventive.
For someone trying to take part in the tango culture, what do you suggest?
I also recommend people go for a tango lesson, which many of the tango places offer before a show. The other thing is to go to an actual milonga. The two I recommend are Salon Canning or Nino Bien. Those are large enough that, as a tourist, you can go and not be self-conscious. You still see real Argentines dancing
You can ruin the atmosphere in a place if you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s why I recommend the larger salons and having someone take you around.
Tango can be very intimidating for tourists, but you need not be afraid of it. At the same time, you have to respect it as a tourist. It is another world –– and it has its own secret codes.