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
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:
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.