Palermo Soho, on the other hand, resembles tony London or New York and exemplifies Argentine resilience, having risen from the ashes of the 2001 peso collapse. Once equal to the U.S. dollar, the Argentine peso plummeted in value. Young designers needed spaces, and rents in Palermo Viejo were cheap then. That’s not the case these days, but on weekends, bars surrounding Plaza Serrano, the heart of Palermo Soho, become impromptu markets where designers set up temporary shops. Any day of the week you can also visit Diseño Arg and Planeta Bs.As., designer incubator spaces run by Claudia Jara, a former fashion journalist and beauty queen. Always with a cigarette in hand, Jara recounts how she established a presence in the area in 2003. “I would interview young designers out of school, and they would say, ‘But Claudia, we have no place to show our designs.’ This is where we come in.”
At night the entire Palermo Viejo area dazzles with candlelit restaurants. My favorites are anything run by chef Germán Martitegui, who has three: the nightclub-like Casa Cruz Restaurant, the newly renovated Scandinavian-inspired Olsen, and Tegui Restaurant, a small, intimate space with only a scattering of tables behind its secretive, graffiti-covered door. During dinner at Tegui, Martitegui tells me each restaurant is for a different kind of person, and a different mood. Casa Cruz is showy, a place to be seen; Tegui, to hide away; Olsen, to feel at home.
For visitors on a budget, Buenos Aires is a place to enjoy. My favorite pleasure is wandering Avenida Libertador, a park-lined boulevard stretching through northern Buenos Aires. The Buenos Aires Zoo, the Museo de Bellas Artes and other must-sees are along the route, including Cementerio de la Recoleta, Eva Perón’s final home. All along the stroll is evidence that Buenos Aires is a mix of tranquility, beauty and energy.
Buenos Aires is the capital of this 40 million-strong nation, but the vastness and beauty of Patagonia make an extended trip worthwhile. Crossed on motorcycle by a young Che Guevera and famously chronicled by author Bruce Chatwin, Patagonia stretches from the Andes through rolling lands spilling back into an Atlantic Ocean traversed by migrating whales, all of it dotted with stunning glacial lakes and rivers.
If you can only see one place in Patagonia, head to Glaciar Perito Moreno, the most famous of the country’s glaciers, set in its own national park. Most tourists stay in nearby Calafate, a town resembling an overgrown stagecoach stop in a John Wayne Western. Those with means stay in the park at Los Notros, a hotel at the glacier’s edge, with a privileged but pricey view. I stay in town and commute to the glacier. A long walkway straddles the glacier’s face, where a massive, 200-foot wall of jagged, Windex-colored ice meets visitors after a bend in the forested park. The ears experience the next awe: a never-ending deafening crunch, the sound of the ice grinding against itself. Booming splashes accompany fragments of the ice cathedral’s facade crashing into the water — timeless theater directed by nature.
After hearing and seeing the ice, I get right onto it, attaching spiky crampons over my boots so I can hike across the white moonlike landscape. The experience confuses the senses. Strong Patagonian sun reflects into my face from the white ice, warming me, but my feet are cold from the frozen surface and the wind. The surrounding vista is stunning. Mountains envelop the river of ice, a dark streak of ancient sediment, churned from the rocks, running down the middle like a spine. It’s a setting that has not changed in millions of years.
At Patagonia’s tip is Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost city, where boats leave for Antarctica. With the enormous Andes behind it, the town looks to be in a struggle with the mountains, trying not to be pushed into the Beagle Channel. The same mountains nestle the ski resort Cerro Castor, used for Olympic training. I’m in town for my birthday, a new year of life at the end of the world. Castor is small, tranquil. It seems only a few Americans have discovered it. My friends and I feel as if we own the place.
With its remoteness, Ushuaia was once used as a penal colony. The Tren del Fin del Mundo, or Train at the End of the World, took prisoners to work in the surrounding forests; now, ironically, it’s a fun, historic train. The vista is a landscape of regenerating, moss-flaked forests, streams for thirsty mustangs, misted mountains in the distance. From following prisoner footsteps, we follow Charles Darwin’s, taking a day cruise to seal- and pelican-strewn islands in the channel. Our tour guide is also a comedian and talented wildlife artist calling herself Crazy Horse, and she invites passengers to the front of the boat between island stops to imitate seals on her speaker system. Her real name is Laura Elena Fernández Sarmiento, a descendant, she says, of one of Argentina’s presidents, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.
Laura has a round, mischievous face and always a smile and a laugh. She moved here from Buenos Aires, and though she admits the weather challenges, nature is what keeps her here: “The mountains, the water, the animals and the beauty of the place.” She has a sister in Santa Barbara, Calif., who wants her to visit more often, but Laura’s always torn about leaving. Knowing that in a few days I have to go back home, I completely understand.