Buenos Aires is the most European of all Latin American cities. With its wide boulevards, leafy parks, grand buildings and varied culture and nightlife, the city is reminiscent of Paris or Barcelona. The Porteños (‘people of the port’), as the residents of Buenos Aires are called, seem more European too – but this is hardly surprising considering that most are descended from European, predominately Italian, immigrants who settled here in the 19th century. With them came a culture and a cuisine that still flavors the city and can be enjoyed in countless art galleries, theaters and museums, as well as fine restaurants. But the city has also spawned its own art forms, notably the tango, for which Buenos Aires is famous.
Buenos Aires is the third largest city in South America and comprises 48 barrios (neighborhoods) in which nearly three million people live. Situated in the east of Argentina beside the Rio de la Plata and surrounded by seemingly never-ending flat land known as the Pampas, the vast sprawling conurbation is a true 24-hour city – there is always something going on to occupy the senses. The downtown area is as noisy and congested as any other major urban center, but the city is really a pleasant place to walk around.
Nuestra Señora de Santa Maria del Buen Aire was founded by the Spaniard Pedro de Mendoza in 1536. It was named after the patron saint of sailors, who is said to be responsible for the good wind or buen aire. Provisions ran low and five years later settlement attempts were abandoned until Juan de Garay refounded the city in 1580. In 1776, Buenos Aires was pronounced the Capital of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate region – a huge region that included what is now Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and parts of Chile and Brazil). The Criollos (Argentines of Spanish descent) merchants, having successfully expelled British invaders in 1806 and 1807, began to rebel against Spain in 1810. It was only after the Declaration of Independence in 1816 that the city became free of colonial hindrance.
Following the city’s federalization in 1880, mass European immigration occurred as workers were brought in to service agriculture and the railways. Development ceased in the mid-20th century as the country’s economy declined – mostly as the result of lack of investment from war-torn Europe. Immigrants arrived from other parts of Argentina and were forced to reside in shanty towns (villas de emergencia) or villas miseria, as they were aptly described. Buenos Aires only re-emerged from its economic woes in the 1990s when the currency was stabilized. Those with money spent it and new buildings, shopping malls and entertainment centers emerged, creating a new way of life for the inhabitants.
However, the future began to look uncertain again following the economic crisis of December 2001. Devaluation made life expensive for the Porteños and job losses plunged many into poverty, evidenced by the families of cartoneros (cart people) who take to the city streets each evening to rummage through bins for materials to sell for recycling. Buenos Aires has bounced back, however, and there are signs that the Argentine economy is on the mend. But despite any lingering financial worries, the Porteños continue to get on with life as best they can.
For the visitor from abroad, there has never been a better time to visit Buenos Aires. With several new museums and a continuous agenda of cultural attractions and events, there is much to see and do in this vibrant, cosmopolitan capital.