Destinations

Buenos Aires: The South American Capital Where Tango Was Born

By
Sam Harrison
|
Freelance Writer
Buenos Aires.
January 12, 2022
|
7 min read

Not the Paris of South America

Tour guides and travel books have often called Buenos Aires the Paris of South America for its cafés, wide boulevards, and—most of all—the Haussmann-inspired architecture that you can see everywhere in neighborhoods like Recoleta. 

But only focusing on Buenos Aires’ French influences erases the eclectic mix of architectural styles that you can spot around the city, from the colorful buildings of La Boca to the Teatro Colón opera house to the Palacio Barolo, built to reflect the cosmology of Dante’s Divine Comedy. There are Spanish colonial, neoclassical, art nouveau, and art deco buildings all around. 

The truth is that Buenos Aires has always absorbed lots of different cultures, both from the waves of European immigration at the turn of the 19th century and from all over Latin America. It’s this unique mix that makes Argentina’s capital and largest city particularly fun to explore—you never know exactly what you’re going to find. 

The people from the port

People from Buenos Aires are known as Porteños, or “people from the port.” The name refers to the European immigrants that crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Buenos Aires by boat. Between 1887 and 1930, waves of European immigrants moved to the city, mostly from Spain, Germany, and Italy. The population of the city tripled in size in that short period, from 500,000 up to 1.5 million and it’s now estimated that around 65% of the population has at least some European ancestry. 

You can see the mix of European influences in many ways, including in Buenos Aires’ restaurants, many of which serve pasta, pizza, or gelato. 

A bookstore capital

bookstore in Buenos Aires.

Porteños love to read, and Buenos Aires is one of the cities with the highest number of bookshops per capita in the world, with over 600 bookstores registered in the city as of 2018—that’s 20.1 bookstores for every 100,000 inhabitants. The most famous is probably El Ateneo Grand Splendid, which is located inside a converted theater. National Geographic even called it the world’s most beautiful bookstore in 2019.  

Jorge Luis Borges is by far Buenos Aires’ most famous writer, and his work was a huge contribution to the start of the magical realism movement in Latin America in the 1920s and 30s. His most famous work is probably the short story collection Ficciones, or Fictions in English. 

Other notable works to check out include Julio Cortazar’s experimental novel Hopscotch, which can be read out of order, jumping across chapters like a game of hopscotch, or any of contemporary author Samantha Schweblin’s books. 

The grandmothers who demand justice

In 1976, a right-wing military dictatorship seized control of Argentina and quickly began “disappearing” anyone it considered politically subversive—including trade unionists, journalists, and students. The dictatorship controlled Argentina until 1983. In that time, an estimated 10,000-30,000 people were kidnapped and taken to military prisons to be tortured. Some were then sedated, loaded into airplanes, and dropped into the Rio de la Plata. 

A number of those disappeared women were pregnant, and around 500 children were taken and secretly adopted out to families that supported the regime.

In 1977, the parents (mostly mothers) of the disappeared began marching every Thursday in front of Argentina’s presidential palace to demand the return of their children and grandchildren. They became the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and have since worked tirelessly to identify the children that were taken and reunite them with their birth families. So far, they’ve identified more than 130 grandchildren. 

The disappeared are gone, but the people of Buenos Aires remember them: Their names are etched into the monument at the Parque de la Memoria. A grassroots organization called Barrios X (para) la Memoria y Justicia has also placed over 1,700 memorial tiles around the city, commemorating those who were taken by returning their names to the streets where they used to live. 

You might have heard this period described as Argentina’s Dirty War, a term the military used to reframe the repression, kidnappings, and murders they committed as a necessary evil. Human rights organizations and judges rejected that framing during the military leaders’ trials—one judge even qualified their actions as genocide. Today, you’ll most often hear the term state terrorism used instead. 

It takes two to tango—and several more to murga 

couple tango dancing on the street in Buenos Aires.

Tango is one of Buenos Aires’ most famous cultural exports—the sensual, melancholy music and dance originated in lower-class dance halls and brothels in the 1880s when Argentine dance mixed with a version of Spanish flamenco. Every night across the city, tango dancers gather and bands often perform at elegant tango dinner shows and milongas, or dance halls. 

But Buenos Aires also has another, much less well-known music that takes over the streets each February for Carnival: the murga porteña, which has roots in both the carnivals of Cadiz, in Spain, and in Afro-Argentine culture of the 19th century. During the month of February, murgas (bands) from different neighborhoods parade in colorful costumes and sequined top hats, with dancers jumping energetically to the beat of the bombo de platillo drums. 

Watch the 2021 Tango World Cup to see some of the world’s most talented tango dancers at work and check out this compilation of murga porteña parades so you know what to expect if you visit during Carnival. 

Prison slang 

Don’t be surprised if the Spanish you hear in Buenos Aires is different from what you learned in high school. If someone says “¡che, no tengo un mango! they´re not talking about the fruit (they’re actually saying "Hey, I don't have a dime"). Buenos Aires has its own slang, Lunfardo, which was allegedly first used in the city’s prisons to prevent guards from understanding prisoners’ conversations. 

Lunfardo has roots in the city’s immigrant population, and the word Lunfardo is thought to come from Lombard, the language spoken in northern Italy at the turn of the century. Lunfardo spread to the lower and middle classes, and from there to the rest of the population, including neighboring Uruguay. Lunfardo also often appears in tango lyrics, including Mano a Mano and other songs sung by Carlos Gardel, probably the most famous tango performer in history. 

Asado Argentino

Argentine meats on the grill.

Porteños and Argentines, in general, are voracious red meat eaters (though in recent years, annual meat consumption has fallen to its lowest levels since 1920, thanks in part to rising prices and a growing trend towards vegetarianism). 

Visiting a traditional Argentine parilla (steakhouse) is a highlight of any visit, but getting invited to an asado or barbecue at someone’s home is even better—hosts traditionally buy around one pound of meat per guest from their favorite butcher, so there’s always leftovers. Just don’t forget to give a round of applause for the asador (grill master) when you’re finished!

Argentine cuts are a bit different from the cuts of beef you get in Europe or the US. You’ll even see posters of Argentine cuts in tourist shops. On the barbecue, you'll usually have a few different cuts, and then also intestines or sweetbreads.

Boca vs. River 

Porteños love soccer, and the city’s loyalties are firmly divided into two camps: Club Atlético Boca Juniors and Club Atlético River Plate. The two teams both originated in the working-class Boca neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, though River Plate moved to the more affluent Núñez area in 1925, earning them the nickname Millionarios, or millionaires. Boca and River fans have clashed many times over the years, and the Telegraph even ranked it the biggest football rivalry in the world in 2016. 

The bouncer pope 

Pope Francis I, current head of the Catholic church, is originally from Buenos Aires—where he worked briefly as a nightclub bouncer before becoming a priest. Francis’s father emigrated to Buenos Aires in 1932 and the would-be pope was born and grew up in the working-class Flores neighborhood. The Metropolitan Cathedral, where Francis once led mass, now houses a small museum dedicated to the pope. 

Don’t cry for me, Argentina

Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires.

Eva “Evita” Perón, Argentina’s most famous first lady, was known during her short life as a champion of labor and women’s rights in the 1930s to early 50s. 

She died of cervical cancer at only 33, and her husband President Juan Perón had her embalmed, with plans to display her body in a monument constructed in her honor. But Perón was ousted by a military coup before the memorial was completed, and Evita’s body disappeared.

Its location remained a mystery for the next 16 years until it was located in a cemetery in Milan in 1971, buried under the name María Maggi. Evita’s body now rests in a secure tomb belonging to her father’s family in La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. 

More than 90 of the cemetery’s 6,000+ tombs and crypts are listed as national historic monuments and daily tours are available. 

LGBTQ+ friendly 

Despite Argentina being a majority Catholic country, Buenos Aires has a long track record of being ahead of the curve on LGBTQ+ issues and is one of the most queer-friendly cities in the region, with tons of gay bars, nightclubs, and cultural centers. 

In 2002, Buenos Aires became the first city in South America to grant same-sex couples the same legal rights and protections as straight couples. Argentina led the way again when the country legalized gay marriage in 2010—five years before the Supreme Court did the same in the United States. 

The city hosts several queer events every year, from Pride in November to the Buenos Aires Queer Tango Festival (held virtually in May this year).

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Last Updated 
January 12, 2022
Buenos Aires: The South American Capital Where Tango Was Born
Sam Harrison
Freelance Writer

Sam Harrison is a freelance writer who spent over four years living in Buenos Aires and writing about Argentina for travel outlets of all kinds. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, Atlas Obscura, Narratively, and n by Norwegian. She currently lives in Barcelona, where she’s trying (and mostly failing) to learn Catalan.

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