WE walked briskly through several streets of shops and crossed the grand, multi-laned La Avenida 9 de Julio - one of Buenos Aires's most historically significant boulevards named in honour of Argentina's Independence Day - before we hit a stretch of Jacaranda trees in full bloom.
But we couldn't stop for an Instagram moment - not when we were on a mission to change money. We had just 10 minutes before the money changer closed on Palermo, the city's poshest shopping street. "It's not so near your hotel, but they're a reliable place to change money," recommended our travel agent from the company Say Hueque, cautioning us against changing notes with the touts in the central district's Calle Florida. They openly shout out "Cambio! Cambio!" at you, but tourists have blogged about fake Argentinian pesos, or getting robbed down the road after they've done your exchange.
We thought we were going to a regular money exchange - you know, like the glass-and-grilled boxes in our shopping malls and office buildings - even though we were told this was the "black market" exchange. "Surely they just mean a money exchange on the street rather than the bank right?" Or so we thought.
It turned out that we were going to get an introduction to our most valuable resource in Buenos Aires, just down the street where the Park Hyatt and Four Seasons Hotels are. It took some serious asking around, before a convenience store owner who was pulling down the shutters to his shop indicated to the sign-less office right in front of his shop.
"That one?" we asked, puzzled. We stood in front of that office, where the entire glass facade had been covered from wall to ceiling with an opaque wallpaper, and all it had was a doorbell. So with nothing to lose, but feeling a bit stupid, we pressed it.
A buzzing sound indicated that we could push the door open, and we entered this empty room with two chairs and a couch, with two men inside. It could be the waiting room of a doctor's office, except that travel posters adorned the walls and no society magazines were lying around. We got into the queue, behind the guy with a Four Seasons hotel uniform, and soon it was our turn to go through another buzzing door for the hallowed hall of the black market exchange. There we got a whopping 10 Argentinian pesos to a dollar, when the official rate was only five. (Since then, the peso has slid sharply against the dollar, following the Argentine government's ease of foreign currency controls last month.)
Our first encounter with the black, or blue (after the flag), market turned out to be one of most memorable adventures in this otherwise sophisticated South American country - with a bustling capital which has an overwhelmingly European style in architecture and culture.
Travel articles rarely highlight it, but the way to enjoy Argentina is with cash, and if you changed US dollars in the black market, you get way more bang for your buck. Buenos Aires - with its wide Parisian-styled boulevards and laid-back Spanish pace of life - is an old soul with a hip feel. But for a taste of the whole country, Mendoza, Iguazu Falls and Bariloche also need to be added to your itinerary.
There's a step-back-in-time feel to Argentina, and the sense of faded - but well-preserved - glory is especially strong in Buenos Aires. But even Argentina isn't impervious to the new world order as it has opened its doors to mainland Chinese - who run the supermarkets in the country, especially in Chinatown (Barrio Chino) at Belgrano.
Even if you don't know much about Argentine history, you'd have some kind of impression of its tempestuous political legacy through the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita. Eva Peron still features quite significantly in the city's consciousness - as one can tell from her large wire mural gracing the Public Works Building on Avenida 9 de Julio.
One of the must-dos is, of course, a tour of Casa Rosada (the Red House) and to look out from the balcony where Eva Peron once made her famous speeches. The house is still functioning as the Argentine President's office, but amazingly, it's open to tourists on the weekend for guided tours. Other iconic sights to visit in Buenos Aires include the historic Teatro Colon which now conducts tours daily.
The weekend too is a time when La Boca comes alive - with live tango music bouncing off the colourfully painted corrugated iron walls of the buildings and football paraphernalia dominating the shops. This is where much of your camera's memory space will be taken up with the colourful buildings and life-sized papier mache figures - especially of Diego Maradona and the everyday Italian immigrants who founded this neighbourhood.
Sundays are great for shopping - especially if you're into antiques and vintage ware. The historic San Telmo, which is just about a 15-minute walk from the revamped Puerto Madero - the Clarke Quay of the city - is turned into a long street market with arts and crafts as well as antiques for sale. The colonial-style houses on cobblestone lanes and the art deco designs on traditional cafes make it a picturesque experience. An ice-cream soda in Buenos Aires will most likely be served as ice cream and syrup in a mug, with carbonated water in a traditional spritzer bottle on the side.
Two must-visit neighbourhoods are Recoleta and Palermo Soho. Recoleta is where the "old money" is - a refined neighbourhood with leafy boulevards and French-style townhouses and buildings. The famous Recoleta Cemetery is a must - if not to see Eva Peron's tomb and for the beautiful art deco designs of many of the mausoleums, and to witness the rather macabre tradition of exposed coffins.
And finally, for fashion shopping, Palermo Soho is the hip hub with streets and streets of cafes and trendy shops, followed by large branded outlets in Alto Palermo. Buenos Aires also has a happening indie design scene, and you're bound to come across shops retailing collectives of local designer brands. Shopping in Argentina is about as good as it gets in South America, rivalled probably only by Brazil.
The 80m high Cataratas del Iguazu is spectacular, but even better is the marvellous boardwalk built right at the falls' edges. Visitors get so close to the water you're soaked by the spray and mist. Those of a certain vintage will, of course, remember the seminal film, The Mission, about the early Jesuit missionary activity in the area. One could opt for a day tour of the preserved Jesuit ruins. The falls were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1984, and this addition to the New Seven Wonders of Nature also forms the border between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.
The falls and its national park is shared between Argentinia and Brazil, and although the Argentinian town is smaller, it is purportedly a safer town to stay in. There are lots of parrillas (BBQ restaurants) around, serving wood-fired Argentian steaks, good pastas and pizzas.
Mendoza looks like an Australian town, think Melbourne, and it is all about the wine and good food. The region has over 2,000 wineries producing over 6,000 labels. One of the most stunning wineries to visit is the Dutch-owned Salentein winery in Uco Valley, which has a glorious setting, an art gallery and a grand piano in its wine cellar. The drive there is also a scenic one, and a bit further off the beaten track.
When you get to Mendoza, there are a number of agencies offering wine tours or you could always rent a bike with a map, and cycle to all the various wineries near Mendoza. Just note that the prettier countryside and wineries are further from town. There are more excellent restaurants in Mendoza and the wineries than you have mealtimes to try them all.
Places to dine in Buenos Aires
Murillo 725, Villa Crespo,
Buenos Aires 1414
WHAT we call private dining in Asia is known as closed door restaurants in Argentina, and topping that list now is I Latina - a restaurant operated by three Colombian siblings. Camilo and Laura Macias manage the service, while Santiago is the talent in the kitchen. I Latina opened in Buenos Aires in 2012, after about 10 years in Bariloche, a resort town in the southern part of the country.
What "closed door" means is that dinners are by booking only, but otherwise it's a full-fledged restaurant, housed in an elegant building and imbued with warm, cozy colours in its furnishings and art.
The restaurant doesn't have an a la carte menu - only a seven-course degustation. While the food in South America on the whole is on the bland side, with little spices or chilli used, I Latina really gave us what we imagined to be more exciting Latin American and tropical flavours.
In fact, this was the only place where sour, sweet and spicy flavours co-existed in one dish, such as the tamarind-covered confit duck, caramelised prawns with spicy pineapple and a coconut-infused, fruity ceviche. The crispy octopus was paired with a thick Peruvian soup (thick) with enough fire in it to taste like Japanese curry. The coffee-braised pork was most excellent - a richer and more luxurious version of our coffee ribs in Asia. The best is that the meal ends with an espresso cup of cinnamon-infused Colombian coffee, which is a real perk given the less-than-stellar coffee you'll find served throughout Argentina. The degustation menu, with one bottle of wine, came up to about $85 per person.
Alicia Moreau de Justo 1160
Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires
CHILA proudly showcases Argentine products from all over the country, and on our visit, the seasonal items featured goatling from Mendoza and black hake from the Antarctic, besides algae from Tierra del Fuego. Chef Soledad Nardelli is extremely talented, and this rare female chef has helmed the restaurant since it opened in 2006. Meats are perfectly roasted and there's a balanced use of herbs and spices, with deeply flavoured broths. The excellent cuts of dry-aged beef is the hallmark of Argentinian beef, especially when they're done to order. The goatling featured a whopping piece of tender meat, while the black hake was infused with saffron and served with a basil sauce. Chila is located at upmarket Puerto Madero, with the port waters reflecting the lights from the swanky apartments and commercial buildings on the opposite side.
Jose Cabrera 5217 y 5099
IN Argentina, the cuisine is also dominated by the cattle industry and the large Italian immigrant community. Here is the best place to eat Italian in the continent, Argentinians are the world's top carnivores, consuming an average of 137 pounds of beef (bifa) a person a year. With 600gm steaks averaging US$13 each, it's a no-brainer that steak is a staple - for tourists at least - but there's also Patagonian lamb, and Italian pasta.
Having a steak at a traditional parilla is a must, and La Cabrera is the pinnacle of that experience. Besides the highly rated steaks, it's a place which serves a number of sides to go with the steaks - like tapenade, a smooth potato mash with Dijon mustard, garlic cloves in red wine, apple sauce, tartar sauce, salad or pickled eggplants. The fun is in guessing what you're eating.
Since the standard serving is 600gms, all we could manage that night was a rich and smooth Kobe beef (at the princely sum of S$50 for 800gms) shared between the three of us. Diners should also check the board for the specials of the day, as they include special prices.