J OUR­NEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY In tune with the city

Rent­ing an apart­ment in Buenos Aires is a labyrinthine process, dis­cov­ers Bernard Lane

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

T’S dis­ori­ent­ing to glimpse the stars of the South­ern Cross wink­ing at me be­tween skyscrap­ing tow­ers. I am on the roof ter­race of our apart­ment in the Buenos Aires barrio (sub­urb) of Palermo. If lean over the iron rail­ings and look down,

can dis­cern a typ­i­cal pa­tio, with col­lapsi­ble chairs and pot plants, sunk in a well of dark­ness.

We are in the heart of the city and con­tent that af­ter count­less emails and web-search over­load, we have fetched up in one of the choicer apart­ments on of­fer. Our 100sq m is buried in the back of a non-de­script build­ing, away from the street hub­bub, spread over two lev­els and di­vided be­tween three liv­ing ar­eas, the most pop­u­lar be­ing the rooftop.

For adults it’s an open-air es­cape. For our pre-school chil­dren, it’s the chance to prac­tise kamikaze ma­noeu­vres on the play­ground swings.

An apt metaphor for Palermo is the lungs of Buenos Aires, a city that chokes on the fumes of foul buses known as colec­tivos. At the end of our street are the botanic gar­dens. Even closer is Las Heras park with its de­light­ful old merry-go-round and dog-walk­ers strain­ing af­ter their hounds.

Fash­ion and us­age have di­vided Palermo into ever smaller lo­cal­i­ties and iden­ti­ties: there’s Palermo Viejo (the writer Jorge Luis Borges lived here), Palermo Hol­ly­wood (home to Ar­gen­tinian movie and me­dia types) and Palermo Soho (sup­pos­edly boho), even Villa Freud (psy­cho­an­a­lyst cen­tral).

Our slice of the barrio, a lo­cal tells me af­ter some hes­i­ta­tion, is sim­ply clas­sic Palermo’’. Ev­ery­thing is close, from the prac­ti­cal (Bulnes un­der­ground sta­tion, Chi­nese laun­dry and Disco su­per­mar­ket) to the price­lessly un­ex­pected (our neigh­bour Felix opens his house as a restau­rant for friends and re­gales us with tales of lawyer­ing and yacht-build­ing while he trans­fixes the chil­dren with hor­ror show-style or­gan riffs). Beruti Street is our home for a fort­night. The best way to find an apart­ment is to con­sult a Buenos Aires guide­book, se­lect a few likely bar­rios, look up some rental agen­cies and scroll through prop­erty list­ings and im­ages of rooms crowded with beds un­til you start to won­der whether the apart­ment that now looks most ap­peal­ing is the first you re­jected as out of the ques­tion. Google Maps is a great help.

In a round­about way I find Casa San Telmo 1887, an agency that turns up on the web rather than in a guide­book. It seems to have more char­ac­ter, be­ing run by Mercedes Fras­sia, an ar­chi­tect, tango devo­tee and cham­pion of restora­tion work in the old colo­nial barrio of San Telmo. I know this be­cause I do an iden­tity check in the lo­cal news­pa­pers and phone di­rec­tory be­fore I in­struct PayPal to send my $US350 ($440) de­posit. In Ar­gentina cash is king.

Soon af­ter I se­cure Beruti Street with my de­posit, I’m star­tled to see a travel fo­rum thread head­lined: Apart­ment Rental Agent to AVOID: Casa San Telmo 1887.’’ But I don’t need to read far into this 4000-word rant, fea­tur­ing a sup­posed con­spir­acy to with­hold ice-cube trays from a Cana­dian vis­i­tor un­der­go­ing den­tal surgery, to feel sym­pa­thy for Casa San Telmo.

When we ar­rive in Buenos Aires I quickly learn that su­per­mar­kets give no change in coins (the metal be­ing worth more than the face value, ac­cord­ing to an el­derly gent in the queue) and that au­to­matic tell­ers of­ten tease (an op­tion on the screen prom­ises US dol­lars that prove un­ob­tain­able) or par­si­mo­nious. The most I can with­draw in a sin­gle trans­ac­tion is 300 pe­sos (about $100).

It’s eas­ier and cheaper, if not safer, to fly in with a thick wad of US dol­lars to cover the bal­ance of your apart­ment rental. For Beruti Street, with its two bed­rooms, up­stairs stu­dio bed­sit and roof ter­race, we are to pay $US612 a week (if you stay a month, you pay for only three weeks). As it hap­pens, Carolina from Casa San Telmo hap­pily takes my even thicker wad of pe­sos. She is a 20-some­thing stu­dent with a pierc­ing, a Buenos Aires Betty Boop. Her English is pretty good.

The con­tract is two A4 pages. The English ver­sion is much the same as the Span­ish, al­low­ing for some lit­eral, Ba­bel Fish-like trans­la­tion. In the eu­pho­ria of ar­rival I sign the con­tract, not trou­bled too much by its im­plau­si­ble in­sis­tence that ev­ery­thing in the apart­ment is in per­fect work­ing con­di­tion’’. I hand over a $US350 bond and in an equally ca­sual fash­ion it’s re­turned without quib­ble two weeks later.

No doubt luck has some­thing to do with it. Our mate from Madrid, Jose, hap­pens to be in Buenos Aires at the same time. He has to change apart­ments twice in quick suc­ces­sion, not im­pressed with the hon­esty of some agen­cies and their ad­ver­tis­ing.

Some­times, of course, it’s the renters who are the pain. In the mid­dle of our stay a court sets a prece­dent by rul­ing that an owner does not have the right to lease her 200sq m apart­ment for short-term hol­i­day rentals. The case made by her neigh­bours is that clutches of up to a dozen tourists, com­ing and go­ing, and par­ty­ing un­til the early hours, ruin the tran­quil­lity of their build­ing.

It’s also a se­cu­rity risk, ac­cord­ing to a lawyer quoted in the press. In Buenos Aires to­day a build­ing is only as safe as the most care­less per­son en­trusted with a key to the front door.

Guide­books give the im­pres­sion that Buenos Aires is one of the safer cap­i­tals of Latin Amer­ica, al­low­ing for a rise in petty crime af­ter the 2001 eco­nomic cri­sis. Most Ar­gen­tini­ans would think that a reck­less un­der­state­ment. One evening my taxi has to take a de­tour as thou­sands of peo­ple con­verge on the cen­tral Plaza de Mayo to protest against crime.

A judge makes head­lines say­ing they should Su­san Kuro­sawa’s col­umn re­turns next week.

DEALS OF THE WEEK

Qan­tas pack­ages in Lon­don and Paris; Raf­fles’ rooms on sale; 50 per cent off an Alaskan cruise. Th­ese and other money-sav­ing of­fers are fea­tured in hol­i­day deals, up­dated daily:

www.the aus­tralian.com.au/travel/dd

HO­TEL OF THE MONTH

See ed­i­tor Su­san Kuro­sawa’s exclusive ac­com­mo­da­tion re­views on the first Fri­day of each month in

mag­a­zine. Next: Brown’s Ho­tel, Lon­don; Fri­day, July 3.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygsman

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