BUENOS AIRES – Step aboard an evening flight from Miami, fall asleep on the plane, and by morning you'll wake up in Buenos Aires, a vibrant city of some 12 million people (when you include the metropolitan area) and one of the best travel bargains in the world.
Buenos Aires is highly literate, highly Catholic, the most European city outside of Europe, and the most cultural, cosmopolitan city in Latin America. But stay here for a while (I've been here a month), and you'll find some interesting contrasts and hints that things aren't always as they seem.
It is, for example, a vibrant, bustling, harried city teeming with commerce, art galleries, high-end restaurants and dance clubs. Porteños (what residents call themselves — "the port people") generally don't eat dinner until 10 p.m. They hit the bars at midnight and then the dance clubs, most of which don't even open until 2 a.m.
But for a city so alive, Buenos Aires is also obsessed with and haunted by its dead. One of the major tourist attractions is the cemetery in Recoleta, where Argentina's rich and famous are interred in gaudy mausoleums, a kind of post-mortem affirmation of the dramatic gap between the country's elites and its poor.
Down by the airport, vacant Navy warehouses look ominously over the city's slums. Locals will tell you the buildings were the sites of the torture of thousands of dissidents during Argentina's period of military rule in the late 1970s until 1983. Many were drugged, put on planes and — still alive — simply pushed off into the Atlantic Ocean.
It's still a sore subject in Argentina. It's spoken of in hushed tones. Mothers of "the disappeared" still protest weekly in the federal plaza, clutching posters of their missing. On a bus from the industrial city of Neuquem to the wine-making city of Mendoza, I met an elderly British-Canadian man who claims to spend his free time — still today — investigating the thousands of government-ordered murders.
There are few native South Americans in Buenos Aires. The city's architecture, cuisine and culture are dominated by European influence, and most of the city is of European descent, predominantly Spanish and Italian, but also German, Portuguese and British, with a rising immigrant population from neighboring Latin American countries.
Yet despite Buenos Aires' proud "melting pot" demographics, there's also strong sentiment to preserve Argentine culture from outside influences. Expectant parents, for example, must choose their baby's name from a list of sufficiently Argentine names pre-approved by the government.
You'll find comparatively few multinational brands here (there isn't a single Starbucks). Many companies familiar to Americans will spin off Argentine-sounding brands, in an appeal to the nativist consumer sentiment.
Argentina is one of the more thoroughly Catholic countries in the world. More than 90 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, and the country's constitution requires that its government support the Roman Catholic Church. But many (if not most) are non-practicing.
The country's stringent divorce laws, for example, have fostered interesting cottage industries such as telos, rent-by-the-hour hotels where cheating spouses rendezvous with lovers, or single Argentines (who typically live with their parents until married) meet for carnal pre-marital relations.
Low-end telos can be as seedy as they sound, but there are cleaner, higher-end spots, too, and discreetly reserving one has become fairly common, particularly in larger cities like Buenos Aires.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It since has endured decades of bad government, including the rudderless reactionary populism of Peronism (which still dominates the county's politics today), the military junta in the 1970s and '80s and consistently bad economic policy that culminated in the country's financial collapse in 2001.
The economy is recovering, but it's clear that most Argentines don't have much faith in it. Many feel that the government is being dishonest about its economic data. One Argentine woman told me that though the government insists there's no inflation, the same pay that bought a cartful of groceries two months ago now buys just two bags.
Durable goods and long-term purchases usually are made with U.S. dollars, not Argentine pesos, a good indicator that Argentines aren't ready to trust their own currency.
Yet for all the abuse they've endured at the hands of government, Argentines still are reflexively pro-government. Socialism and Peronism (now run by political and cultural elites who denounce elitism) still rule Argentine politics. Market liberals are few and far between.
This is partly because of U.S. meddling here (the military junta was supported by the CIA) has soured Argentines to U.S.-style government, and partly because Argentines, like many in Latin America, wrongly associate neo-liberalism with the cronyism, nepotism and corruption that many developing countries have embraced over the years under the guise of "pro-market reform."
That said, Argentina is a beautiful country and an absolute steal for American and European tourists.
The 3-1 peso-dollar exchange also makes it one of the better bargains in the world. A world-class meal in a city like Buenos Aires (or Mendoza, or Bariloche) with an appetizer, desert and a premium bottle of wine will run at most $30 or so per person.
Argentina is known for its beef, and particularly its steak, but its famous parilla barbecues will also serve up lamb, venison, wild boar, trout or a number of other animals raised in the vast, wild expanse of the Patagonia (this is not the place for vegetarians).
Buenos Aires offers culture and sophistication, but the vast majority of Argentina is pastoral, untouched wilderness and offers some amazing contrasts in geography. Sweep up the western coast on a tour bus, for example, and take in the magnificent vistas offered by the Andes and the Patagonian wilderness, from the striking Perito Moreno glacier on the bottom of the world to the gorgeous Lake District to the wineries of Mendoza farther north.
The North offers desert in the west and more tropical climes in the east, including Iguazu Falls, the most spectacular waterfall in the world.
Though there's strong anti-American sentiment here, Argentines are mostly warm, congenial and hospitable — even to American tourists (like me) who speak little Spanish.
For a country so literate and so rich in natural resources and tourist destinations, it's tragic that Argentina has fallen so far in the last century and that so much of the country remains so poor.
Its neighbor and rival to the west, Chile, is thriving and providing a model for the rest of Latin America. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that sound economic policy will arrive in Argentina any time soon.
Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.