When we first visited Argentina three years ago two stark and contrasting facts were immediately apparent: the pitiful state of the local economy and the absolute bonanza of travel bargains.

Friends had told us of making hotel reservations in Buenos Aires for $200 a night which, when they arrived, were now $80 — same hotel, same room, different exchange rate.

Fast forward to 2007, and while this fabulous and vibrant country is still feeling the aftereffects of an economic perfect storm, Argentina is slowly and inexorably climbing back onto its feet.

The peso — before the fall in December 200l — was once pegged 1-to-1 to the US dollar. It is now 3.10 pesos to the greenback, which means that, even today, prices are half what they were before the collapse.

If you fancy a change of pace from our own Ventura County backyard by heading to the land of the gaucho, don’t feel guilty about taking advantage of their hard times. They want you there. Your dollars help their recovery, so take your next vacation in the Big Apple (Buenos Aires that is, not New York). And enjoy.

Most tourists start in Buenos Aires, but being big fans of the grape, we headed first to the wine country of Mendoza, the province to the Northwest of the country which is closer to Chile than to any city in Argentina. We wanted to experience what we’d been told was the magical drive across the Andes into Argentina and the emerging, quite wonderful red wines of the country. So we flew on a wide-bodied Lan Chile jet to Santiago (American, United, Delta and other airlines fly to Buenos Aires, usually with one stop) and, after a short rest, started the 365 kilometer climb up and over the highest mountain range in the Americas.

This road of sheer drops and hairpin curves is not for the faint of heart, but the scenery more than lived up to its billing.

It was in 1561 that the first Spanish conquerors marching across the mountains from Chile founded Mendoza. Today climbers come from all over the world to scale Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Southern and the Western hemispheres.

On the road we were overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of the mountains. As the snows start to melt in the spring (our fall) spectacular waterfalls line the route, and the rock formations are staggering in their range of colors.

Nevertheless, it was almost a relief to descend after a six-hour drive, into the bucolic landscape of Mendoza province — land of green orchards and vineyards stretching across a vast alluvial plain, ending abruptly at the sheer white rock wall of the Andes.

As far as the eye can see, the alluvial plain quickly fills up with vineyards dotted among orchards of plum, apricot, peach, apples, quince, walnuts and almonds all ready and willing to supply North America in our winter, when our sun fades and the summer fruits dry up.

This country was endowed by its creator with the most fertile, beautiful land in all of South America, and it became a melting pot where immigrants from Italy and Spain brought with them, along with their work ethic, their agricultural knowledge, especially of wine growing. By the 19th century, Mendoza was selling wine to the rest of Argentina and sending barrels in horse carts across the mountains to Chile.

Soon Argentina, a country four times larger than Texas and five times the size of France, became the fifth-largest producer of wine in the world and the third-largest per capita consumer after Italy and France.

But here’s the rub: There was little incentive to improve the quality of the wines from the rough, headache-inducing stuff favored by the locals because they drank everything they could produce themselves. Not any longer.

Now the Argentinian wine industry is booming.

Foreign capital pours into the Mendoza Valley as industrialists and entrepreneurs race each other to invest in what has become a vino boom. If 100 percent of the available wine growing land was producing, Argentina could exceed the outcome of France and Italy put together. Extravagant, state-of-the-art wineries in various stages of construction already dot the landscape.

A Cathedral of Wine

Our destination was one of the grandest wineries. Bodega Salentein was built with Dutch capital under the management of Carlos Pulenta, whose family has been making wine in this valley for almost 100 years.

Salentein planted thousands of hectares of Malbec — the rich grape that came unappreciated from France and became the Argentine favorite (think a richer, more dense Merlot) — as well as Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz. They are even experimenting with Pinot Noir on the lower foothills of the Andes.

The Salentein winery, an imposing stone building, is built in a cruciform — hence the locals name for it: “A Cathedral of Wine.” Its interior was designed by Bormida and Yanzon, a leading Buenos Aires firm, in which the four wings of the cross converge in a circular amphitheater.

In the middle of the vineyards, Posada Salentein provided a comfortable base for some serious wine tasting around the area. They now have eight delightful rooms and a wonderful kitchen serving up superb local fare.

Also, don’t miss a visit to their new and spectacular cultural center called Killka, which combines murals, art and sculpture, and a superb 80-seat restaurant which has just opened next door to the winery.

Pulenta, by the way, has now moved on, starting his own winery, Finca y Bodega Vistalba, which produces a fantastic sauvignon blanc and a malbec/merlot blend that sells out fast. It’s well worth having a meal at the winery — washed down with a great bottle of wine.

South America at its best

Just longer than an hour’s flight from the wine region, we were in a different world: Buenos Aires.

With the dollar so powerful, we decided to sample the very best Buenos Aires has to offer: The Four Seasons. With top hotels searching for guests, they have come up with enticing packages, one of which was too good to turn down even though our budget does not normally run to Four Seasons.

We did a combination trip, six nights minimum — the “South America at its Best” package, which combined three nights at the Buenos Aires Four Seasons with three nights at the Four Seasons Carmelo resort just across the Rio de La Plata in Uruguay — with lots of extras thrown in.

The Four Seasons Buenos Aires is actually two hotels in one — a modern high-rise in front, and behind, a magnificent Beaux Arts Mansion built in 1916 by an Argentine businessman for his new bride and restored with its Louis XIII-inspired gilt moldings, its high ceilings and imported parquet floors intact. Called “La Mansion,” it’s favored by the celebrity jet set from Madonna to Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas.

To get to the resort in Carmelo you can take a 15-minute flight by private plane or an hour ride on a high-speed ferry — The Buquebus — followed by a 50-minute road trip to the resort in the Uruguayan countryside and three more nights at this gorgeous country lodge, with golf course and spa. It was one of the most peaceful places we have ever experienced and just right for jet-lagged bodies and harassed souls.

Another hotel package in Buenos Aires offered is “Tango y Shopping.” A minimum stay of two nights in Buenos Aires, usually on the weekend, includes a fabulous buffet breakfast, a tango show at the Bar Dome in the hotel and a bottle of sparkling wine tossed in. They’ll also toss in a 10 percent discount card for the local boutique shopping center.

If you stay in a cheaper hotel you can still pop into the tango show by showing up at the Bar Dome and spending a minimum 10 pesos ($3 plus) for a drink or coffee. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the town’s big tango shows, and you can even get up and dance with the gorgeous young dancers.

The Four Seasons is in La Recoleta, the city’s most fashionable district, so it is in walking distance to great shopping and lots of local attractions. Regular daily rates are $295-395 a night (depending when you’re there).

The Four Season’s Swiss-born chef, Matthias Zumstein, presides over a kitchen which is full of fresh ideas and even fresher produce. And even if you are on a budget it’s worth a splurge to savor the delights of their kitchen or the buffet lunch.

At the other end of the scale on the advice of the hotel’s general manager we sought out something simpler: Guerrin on Avenue Corrientes l368 (no reservations needed) the oldest pizzeria in Buenos Aires — owned and operated by the same Italian family for more than 100 years. There wasn’t a tourist in sight as we sat crammed in with the locals on a warm night in a crowded restaurant with fans whirring overhead and the waiters greeting the regulars like old friends. We shared a giant pizza, with a large salad, another order of empanadas, a half bottle of wine, a beer and two flans for dessert — all of it wonderful. Our bill was less than $16

The city that produced the tango and Eva Peron knows a thing or two about seduction. Despite their difficulties it’s still all too easy to be seduced by Buenos Aires.

For the tourist, everything produced locally is guilt-inducingly cheap. Food is superb — and the prices are sometimes unbelievable.

Our first stop in Buenos Aires had to be the Recoleta Cemetery and the tomb of the Duarte family. Never heard of the Duartes? Their most famous offspring — even though she was illegitimate and not strictly speaking entitled to the name — was Eva Duarte, the poor girl from the sticks who married dictator Juan Peron and became the combination bitch goddess/saint, Eva Peron.

The cemetery is a city built to house the blue bloods of Argentina who have passed on. The tombs are grandiose villas for the dead, some of whom are undoubtedly spinning in their marble sepulchers at the idea that they have found their final resting place alongside the upstart woman they so despised when she was alive.

Another must see is Casa Rosada, so called because originally it was plastered with a substance made of mud colored with ox blood. It stands in the Plaza de Mayo and is still pink, though this time from a more conventional paint. It’s where Juan and Eva waved to the masses gathered below. Still the seat of a government which has taken a lot of flak lately because of the sagging economy, the building is protected by barricades to take care of the crowds who use the square as a central protest site.

In search of something more cheerful, we moved onto La Boca, one of the most colorful areas of the city down by the old port where immigrants from Genoa were disgorged from rickety ships in the late 1800s and set up homes and restaurants along the water’s edge. Today the Italians have mostly moved on, leaving the highly colored houses, many of which were built of the original corrugated tin and painted in primary colors, to artists, painters, sculptors and entertainers. There are the ubiquitous tango dancers — it was from the bars and brothels of the area that this most Argentinian of all art forms sprang — mimes, living statues, performing dogs and all the rest of it. Think New Orleans at bargain prices.

For more sophisticated souvenirs, the Feria at San Telmo takes place on Saturday and Sunday throughout the year. This antique district, 11 blocks of Avenida Florida , the main shopping street of Buenos Aires, has cobbled lanes lined with antique shops, restaurants and coffee houses. It is also home to the National Historical Museum. But on the weekend, visitors make a beeline for the squares, filled with peddler’s stands whose treasures include everything from old tango sheet music, to gold and silver jewelry to small silver pieces from the arts and crafts, deco and Beaux Arts period.

Go see it while the bargains are hot.

Buenos Aires is still the most elegant city in South America — think Paris more than Rio, albeit Paris with Cuban prices. And though in need of a face-lift — something that requires more money than the old dowager can currently put her hands on — Evita’s city is still the sexy capital of an immensely attractive country.


Be aware that if, like us, you land in Chile with an American passport, you will have to pay a $100 tax per person even though you’re heading straight out to Argentina. So your best bet is to fly straight into Buenos Aires.

Best buys: leather, silver, equine supplies — silver bits, spurs, polo mallets or polo outfits and boots, leather vests, jackets and purses.

Ask for a Value Added Tax form which will get you a 21 percent refund. Take anything you’ve bought more than $70 to the airport and have the paperwork recorded there. We got our tax money back in the mail three months later.

Packing everything there is to do in Buenos Aires in three days was impossible. To help us maximize our time, we used the services of a guide at $70 an hour. While that may sound pricey by Argentine standards, Evelyn Kollmann, an English teacher of Viennese descent, was well worth the money. A car and driver is included in the price, she knows Buenos Aires inside out and is as much local travel agent for you as tour guide. She can make sure you find the right place to buy the best quality goods — from leather jackets to business cards to artwork — at the best price. And she knows where to find the tenderest steak in town, where the meal with all the trimmings along with a great bottle of local wine will set you back less than $20. Her e-mail address is evelynkollmann@fibertel.com.ar and she’s a gem.

One of the fanciest malls in Buenos Aires is Patio Bullrich, just down the street from the Four Seasons. The imported Italian and German fashions are of course expensive so look for the local companies, selling everything from beautiful shoes to baby clothes and cosmetics at terrific bargains. There are also mall cafes which serve fresh light lunches where you can drink a glass of wine while watching the beautiful people pass by. Look out for the guys with the heavy tans and the holes in their temples. Those are the Argentine polo players, the finest in the world. Try finding that at your local mall.

In restaurants keep cash on hand for tipping. If you add it to your credit card bill, it’s likely no one will ever see it again — least of all your server. And you have more power in negotiating a price if you pay cash rather than plastic. Most ATMs will spill out dollars or pesos.

Make sure you look down occasionally when walking — even on the elegant Avenida 9th of July — to avoid holes and broken sidewalks.

Crime: Though it has been through economic hard times, most buildings in Buenos Aires have armed guards at night, and street crime or muggings in well-lit public areas are rare. We never felt in the least threatened. The same kind of elementary precautions you would take in any American city are more than adequate here.

Happily, Argentinian wines can be easily found on Ventura County shelves.

I picked up the excellent Norton Malbec at Oxnard’s World Market for $6.99 a bottle. Mandell’s Liquor Store in Ventura offer a Casaterra Merlot at $8 and a Pircas Negras Malbec for $10. Wade Wine in Westlake has a superb Paul Hobbs Bramare Malbec which will set you back $79.99 (yes that’s $79.99). Trader Joe’s often has good Argentinian wines — but steer clear of the La Boca brands of wine. They’re pretty undrinkable and not really representative of the great wines of the country.