Buenos Aires | TheUnion.com

Buenos Aires

This is the second of a three-part series about a South American vacation.

To most of the world, California’s recent recall election was a political travesty that included a former child actor, a golf pro, a porn king and a stripper. Anyone with $3,500 for a filing fee could run for governor – and 135 did.

A recent month-long, four-nation visit to South America showed that most considered the election a farce. This was particularly true in Argentina, which has had some political problems of its own. With a land area and population slightly larger than the Golden State, Argentina has had six presidents in 15 months, including five within two weeks.

Argentina had a record 4 million visitors in 2003 and expects even more this year. A currency rate favorable to visitors coupled with a sense of safety from terrorism are the main reasons for the revitalized popularity of the nation and particularly Buenos Aires, its capital.

The current president, in office since May, is 53-year-old Nestor Kirchner, a Peronist who won his nation’s highest office even though he garnered only 22 percent of the vote.

Initially there was speculation that Kirchner would be a puppet who, like his five predecessors, would make a hasty exit from Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. Quick action on two measures – one benefiting mothers of children killed in Argentina’s “dirty war” three decades ago, the other a pact with the International Monetary Fund on a $21 billion debt – erased the “puppet” label and rewarded Kirchner with an approval rating that at one point reached 75 per cent.

Still, Kirchner copes with other major problems. Unemployment remains high. A public debt of $132 billion has necessitated cutting public workers’ pay and benefits and imposing strict limits on bank account withdrawals, lest there be a frenzied run on the banks.

The Pink House

Casa Rosada, the “Pink House,” is located on Plaza de Mayo, the main square in Buenos Aires. Its most famous occupant was the dictator Juan Peron. Elected president in 1946, he brought about labor reforms but suppressed freedom of speech, closed religious schools and increased the national debt. Eva, his second wife, was the most powerful woman in South America’s history. She died in 1952 from cancer at the age of 33.

Three years later, Peron was exiled from office by a military coup. His then wife Isabel, who had been vice president, became the first woman head of state in the western hemisphere. She, too, was ousted by a military junta. Juan Peron made a comeback in 1973 and was again elected president, but died 10 months later. Thus ended 27 years of Peron political rule.

More than half a century after her death, Eva Peron continues to draw big crowds. Her grave site in a downtown cemetery is a featured stop on city tours.

Buenos Aires is a vibrant city of 11 million inhabitants – one-third of Argentina’s total population – with many plazas, some skyscrapers and wide, Paris-like streets with sidewalk cafes and numerous shops. About three-quarters of the city’s residents are of Spanish or Italian ancestry. While Spanish is the main language, many of the portenos (port dwellers) speak other languages.

The central business district is northwest of Plaza de Mayo. The waterfront and docks are to the east. Many of the residents live in neighborhoods called barrios, which have their own churches, schools and stores. One of the barrios, La Boca, is known for its colorfully painted houses and fine Italian restaurants.

The wealthy live in suburban mansions north of the city. The poor are packed into ramshackle wooden structures to the southwest. Portenos call the slums villas miserias (villages of misery).

Heavily traveled Avenida 9 de Julio is the widest street in the world at 425 feet. For a shopping adventure, there’s Florida Street, a pedestrian mall offering everything from Harrods and Christian Dior to McDonalds. Then there’s Avenida del Libertador, named for Gen. Jose de San Martin, who liberated Argentina from Spanish rule. Amidst the daily morning traffic jams, there usually is an interesting assemblage of walkers, joggers and dog-walkers.

Rio has its samba; in Argentina, it’s the tango that’s been most popular for the last century. Other staples here are steaks and siestas.

Our hotel, the five-star Sheraton Park Tower, is within easy walking distance of shops, restaurants and sights and 45 minutes from either of Buenos Aires’ two airports. We were there prior to boarding the Silver Wind for a cruise around Cape Horn and the southern tip of South America, up the west coast through the Chilean fjords to Valparaiso. The Silver Wind is one of four vessels sailing under the banner of Silversea, often described as the Cadillac of the cruise industry.

Our stay in Buenos Aires ended, we headed for the nearby dock area, where we finally caught up with the Silver Wind. The sleek Silversea ship, with a capacity for 296 passengers, would be our home at sea for the next 17 days.

For more information, call Argentina Tourist Information 1-(212) 603-0443; Silversea Cruises 1-(877) 215-9986; Sheraton Park Tower 1-(888) 872-8356.

Bob Richelson is a frequent traveler who lives in Lake Wildwood.

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