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Few journeys offer such a stunning introduction to a city as the aerial approach to Buenos Aires . The city - the third largest in Latin America, with around eleven million inhabitants - may not enjoy the dramatic scenery of, say, Rio, but what it does have is space; lots of it. Surrounded by the seemingly infinite pampa, Buenos Aires' sprawl is checked only to the northeast by the River Plate, an estuary whose great brown expanse in turn suggests a watery extension of these flattest and most fertile of lands. Just as impressive as this expansive vista, however, is the incredible regularity of the city's layout; with no geographical quirks to overcome, Buenos Aires is practically a blueprint for the strict grid system according to which the Spanish colonial administration built their New World cities.

On the ground, Buenos Aires initially seems to live up to this aerial impression of uniform vastness: the entire conurbation of Gran Buenos Aires covers some 1400 square kilometres, much of it taken up by nondescript suburbs, divided and subdivided by hectic motorways and flyovers. At the centre of the conurbation, however, sits the city proper or Capital Federal and, at its heart, you'll find a city on an eminently human scale. Buenos Aires is a city of barrios (neighbourhoods). In the downtown district these barrios merge somewhat - commerce and finance are the real defining boundaries of this area - but away from the city's compact core they assume strong individual identities. The strongest identity of all is worn by the highly idiosyncratic La Boca , the city's famously colourful southern port district and possibly the only place in the world where it's regarded as normal to paint houses, telegraph poles and trees in the colours of your football team. Adjoining La Boca to the north is the charming if occasionally crumbling cobbled neighbourhood of San Telmo , a bohemian mix of tango bars, antique shops and artists' studios. To the north of the city centre, there's the exclusive neighbourhood of Recoleta , synonymous with its fabulously aristocratic and ornate cemetery, and patrolled by designer-clad ladies-who-lunch and professional dog-walkers. In all there are 47 barrios in Capital Federal, forming a fascinating patchwork quilt of identities and provoking fierce loyalties in their inhabitants. For many people, these neighbourhoods are Buenos Aires' best sights, more intriguing than the majority of the city's museums, churches or monuments and requiring nothing more than a bit of time and walking around to be enjoyed.

Even more important than divisions between barrios, though, is that between north and south . Ever since the city's elite fled the southern barrio of San Telmo in 1871, after a yellow fever epidemic, the north has been where you'll find Buenos Aires' monied classes, while the south is largely working class. This division of wealth shows itself clearly on the streets of Buenos Aires: the north is dominated by high-rise constructions and grand late nineteenth-century mansions and apartment blocks, whilst in the south low-rise buildings predominate, marking the area's much slower pace of development. The centre is perhaps best regarded as a kind of buffer zone between these two; no one feels out of place on busy pedestrianized Calle Florida or bookshop, cinema and café-lined Avenida Corrientes. Equally, the west of the city is a kind of neutral zone, largely middle class with pockets of both wealth and poverty.

For the tourist, all these areas of the city have something to offer. As well as the glamour of Recoleta, the main draw in the north are the city's best museums, and the landscaped parks, botanical garden and zoo of Buenos Aires' largest and greenest barrio, Palermo . The south is much more about soaking up the city's most traditional atmosphere while the centre is a kind of mixture of both these attractions, wrapped up in a sometimes hectic atmosphere but with plenty of welcoming cafés, bookstores and cultural centres to ease things along. The attractions of the west are scattered through various barrios and include one of the city's most enjoyable events, the Sunday gaucho fair in the outlying barrio of Mataderos.

Buenos Aires is one of Latin America's most culturally distinctive cities and there is both cliché and truth in its popular image as the home of tango, football and Evita. All make their presence felt on the streets, and no one witnessing the mass celebrations after a major football victory would doubt its importance in local life. Yet to sum up the city in terms of its most famous cultural icons would be to do an injustice to its diversity and subtlety. The city's elusive quality was perhaps best captured by Argentina's greatest writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who said it "inhabits me like a poem that I haven't yet managed to put down in words". Far less elusive, however, is Buenos Aires' linguistic identity; the heavily inflected, almost Italian-sounding Spanish of the city's inhabitants - liberally peppered with lunfardo , the capital's idiosyncratic slang - is one of the Spanish-speaking world's most instantly recognizable accents.

Above all, the capital is an immensely enjoyable place: one of the world's great 24-hour cities, it is perhaps one of the few where you'll find yourself with standing-room only on a bus in the early hours of a weekday morning. Whatever time you hit the streets, you'll find Porteños , as the city's inhabitants are known (from puerto, meaning port), in animated conversation over an espresso in one of the city's ubiquitous confiterías, or cafés. And unlike some of the continent's more Americanized cities, such as Caracas or São Paulo (and despite the ever-increasing traffic), Buenos Aires is still a great city to walk around. In addition, you'll find its central streets agreeably populated at most hours of the night: not only with revellers but with people walking their dog or nipping out for a coffee.

Around Buenos Aires are a number of worthwhile attractions. To the north lie wealthy suburbs such as Olivos, home to the presidential residence, leafy villa-lined Vicente López and San Isidro whose winding cobbled streets look down on the silvery brown waters of the River Plate. Beyond San Isidro, and only an hour from the city centre, you'll find one of the region's most beautiful and unexpected landscapes: the Paraná Delta where traditional wooden houses on stilts sit amongst lush subtropical vegetation. The Delta is reached via the town of Tigre , from where boat trips can also be taken to Isla Martín García , a former penal colony and now a nature reserve, as well as to the Uruguayan coast. Just across the River Plate, the Uruguayan town of Colonia del Sacramento makes an excellent overnight trip from Buenos Aires, as much for its laid-back atmosphere as for its stunning colonial architecture.



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