You can't visit Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital city, without being seduced by a tango or two along the way
As the dancers stalked across the darkened stage, their willowy figures entwined around each other. They slowly swayed in time to the music, moving as one and oozing sexual energy. From my front row seat, I watched, enchanted. This was the tango, all right.
I was in Buenos Aires - the spiritual home of the dance - and in the tiny back room of Café Tortoni, I was seduced by the tango. It's fuelled by emotion and suggestive moves; you can see why so many people fall in love with the dance - and why it’s impossible to get it out of your head.
The tango originated in the late 19th century, when Buenos Aires first became a cultural melting pot. It attracted immigrants from all over the world, who moved into the area now known as Caminito. At the time, the colourful port district was famed almost as much for its brothels as for its brightly-painted buildings, and for the influx of lonely new immigrants, it was certainly the place to be.
Alone in a strange city, they were on the lookout for new friends and a bit of fun and drink to drown their sorrows, and by combining their cultural influences, they managed to do just that. By mixing African beats, Indian rhythms and Latin influences, they created a new kind of music, then added an emotion-charged dance. Lo and behold, the tango was born.
Fast forward a century or so and people are still putting the tango through its paces. These days, it is danced in towns and cities across the globe but Buenos Aires is still considered to be its birthplace. The city is justifiably proud of its past and no self-respecting tourist should pass through without sampling the tango for themselves. Whether you want to dig out your dancing shoes or watch the action from afar, there are plenty of tango-taster options in Buenos Aires - and all are well-worth doing.
The easiest option by far is to join an excursion. Most hotels offer packages where you can enjoy a meal, a professional show and even try a session yourself but these vary wildly in price depending on the location and how much you want to do. It’s always worth doing a bit of research, though, and if you just want to see a show, one of the best deals is at the world-famous Café Tortoni.
This traditional coffee house has been an Argentinian institution since the 1850s and is a great place to sample some old-world charm. Although primarily a cafe, the venue puts on intimate tango shows at the rear of the restaurant. They only last for about an hour but in that time, you can expect a great introduction to the tango with two or three couples dancing, a tango singer and a backing band. The cabaret-style shows cost around AR$40 per person (a bargain compared to some others) and are always very popular so, if you can, book in advance.
If you’d like to see where the tango found its feet, a trip to modern-day Caminito is a must. Even though the immigrants are long gone, the colourful district still remains and many of its buildings have plaques to prove they are steeped in tradition. Thanks to the scores of ‘dancers’ willing to pose with you (for a fee), you’re more likely to pick up a tacky souvenir here than any dance steps. But Caminito is still worth a visit – you’ll just have to use your imagination to picture it in its heyday.
If you can’t get the tango out of your head though, and want to give it a try, ignite your passion for the dance at a local milonga, or ‘tango party’. These relaxed social events are held almost every night and dancers of all abilities are welcome to attend. A popular way to keep fit, milongas provide a cheap, fun way to mix with the locals and learn the basic tango steps in a traditional dance hall setting. It’s not unusual to see hundreds of locals twirling around the dance floor at once, so beginners can blend in seamlessly even if they’ve got two left feet. After all, it’s the taking part that counts!
Where to stay
Garden House Art Factory Hostel: if you're looking for an unusual place to stay, try here. Beyond the hostel's unassuming front door is a living, breathing piece of art where each room is different. Graffiti artists have been allowed to run riot in this trendsetting hostel and there's a warm and welcoming atmosphere, too.
Hostel Rayuela: this friendly hostel is run by live-in owners who are keen to make sure their guests have the perfect stay. The brightly-coloured rooms are both cool and comfortable and although it's mainly geared towards backpackers, travellers can enjoy all the comforts of home and mod cons such as LCD TVs and Nintendo Wiis.