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Vibrant Buenos Aires can be easy on the wallet

  • Story Highlights
  • Substantial prix-fixe meals typically cost less than $10
  • Visitors can stay in a private double at Garden House Hostel for $30
  • For about $20, plus a one-drink minimum, take in a tango show at Cafe Tortoni
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By Emanuella Grinberg
CNN
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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CNN) -- Vegetarians, beware. It's Wednesday night at the Garden House Hostel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the unmistakable scent of juicy slabs of meat on the grill is wafting through the halls, luring guests to its source.

Tango shows at the legendary Cafe Tortoni are among the more expensive in the city at $20. Many other salons offer cheaper performances.

On the patio, where the grill master is preparing the asado, or barbecue, an assortment of foreigners -- Aussies, Americans and Latinos -- sit around a faded wooden picnic table and in circles of plastic garden chairs, sharing liters of Quilmes beer and stories of their travels.

Inside, we fill a makeshift dining room set of folding chairs and tables, where bowls of salad and bottles of wine and beer compete for space with our plates, loaded with thick cuts of sirloin and plump sausages (grilled vegetables are an option for herbivores). Glasses clink amid salutations of "que aprovecha," or enjoy, and the silence of determined eaters quickly falls over the room.

The scene plays out weekly at the hostel, near Buenos Aires' market and antiques district of San Telmo. The buffet cost about $10 U.S. for all the meat, salad and wine I could manage -- a steal when you throw in the hostel's convivial atmosphere and hospitable staff. Anyway, my friend and I were paying only about $30 a night for a private double, and beds in a dorm run about $10 a night.

In a time of declining currencies and global financial crisis, hostels are no longer strictly the domain of weary backpackers and college students. With the money saved, even a middle-class American with a crumbling stock portfolio can enjoy a city like Buenos Aires -- known as the Paris of Latin America -- in a manner befitting a profligate jet-setter.

From museums and theaters to international cuisine and bumpin' nightclubs, Buenos Aires has all the offerings of a major European city without the grim exchange rate. Argentina's 2001 economic crisis brought droves of bargain-hunting tourists to what was once regarded as Latin America's most expensive city.

Prices have crept up since then, but it's still a great value. Amid the current global economic turmoil, the Argentine peso recently dropped to its lowest level in nearly six years.

Of course, the catch is snagging affordable airfare, but even that can be done through travel agencies or patient Web searches for package deals, provided your dates are flexible. The market for weekly apartment rentals is also ripe for those seeking the experience of a home away from home.

Not that you'll be spending much time in your room. Just wandering the streets and plazas of this sprawling city, where remnants of the city's colonial European history intersect with 21st-century chic, provides enough stimulus for the most jaded city dweller.

After a deep sleep induced by red meat and red wine, we were ready for the long walk across the city to la Recoleta, a neighborhood where cobbled streets separate towering nightclubs and upscale boutiques from early 20th-century churches, homes and the Recoleta cemetery, resting place of the city's elite.

With more than 6,400 mausoleums wedged together, including that of former first lady Eva Duarte de Peron, the cemetery provides a glimpse into the opulence of the upper class without costing a penny -- unless you want to buy a map of the grounds for less than $2.

From there, neatly manicured parks and green areas dotted with exercise classes and reading groups separate you from just a few of the city's top-notch museums, including the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which asks for a suggested donation to gain entry.

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Farther down Avenida Liberador, past rows of grand mansions belonging to foreign consulates, MALBA, or Museo de Arte Latinoamericana de Buenos Aires, offers free admission on Wednesdays, which gets you access to paintings and installation art by some Latin America's foremost modern and contemporary artists.

Or maybe you just like to sit and watch the world go by. Like many Latin American cities, Buenos Aires' prime real estate for people-watching belongs to plazas and cafes. A prime example is Plaza de Mayo, in the city's Centro district, which is flanked by the president's office, a Gothic cathedral and high-rise office buildings. It offers a panorama of the city's architectural evolution and an endless parade of portenos, as city dwellers call themselves.

Eventually, all the walking and ogling calls for a caffeine boost. Luckily, you're never far from one of the city's numerous cafes, where three U.S. dollars often can buy you a strong cortado (espresso) or café con leche and three medialunas, known stateside as croissants.

But if you're like me, walking makes you hungry. For those of us who require a more substantial daytime meal, many Buenos Aires restaurants offer prix-fixe meals, though one of the components is usually a drink instead of a dessert or starter. Meal choices include sample sizes of meat, pasta or the signature milanesa sandwich, a breaded and fried slice of meat -- usually for no more than 25 or 30 pesos, less than $10 U.S.

Vegetarians are not entirely neglected in the city of steak. Wandering the city's upscale Palermo district, also the home of many retail bargain shops, you'll find Arte Sana, a beacon of healthy eating that serves up vegetarian plates and blended juices. Like many natural food joints in the States, a bowl of lentil soup or stir-fry is going to run you more than a McDonald's value meal, but the cleansing aspect is well worth it after all the coffee and meat.

Then the night calls, with enough options to leave your head spinning. But first, you need tango-ready legs. Not a problem. Myriad salons occupy Buenos Aires' narrow, congested side streets, offering full leg waxes and more starting at $5 U.S., depending on the cleanliness of the establishment. I opted for the 30 peso range, about $9 U.S. Sure enough, the pain factor was the same as it is in the United States, but for a fifth of the price, I was able to grin and bear it.

Now I was ready for a whirl at a tango salon, considered by many a staple of a visit to Buenos Aires. Those seeking an interactive experience can take free or cheap lessons in one of the city's many salons and stick around for dinner while professionals take over the floor.

Others content to simply watch can opt for a show at any number of venues -- the legendary Café Tortoni being one of the more expensive venues at about 70 pesos, or $20 U.S., for a 90-minute show, plus a one-drink minimum. Plenty more salons offer cheaper dinner and theater packages with performances of comparable bravura, minus only the historic and somewhat touristy feel of Tortoni.

I tried tango once and quickly realized I was better off sticking to the city's lively bar and nightclub scene, which stands up to its counterparts in New York or London in terms of attitude, sweat and plata, or money. Younger portenos like the ones you'll meet at the hostel can steer you toward the best option, depending on the night. We ended up at Museum in San Telmo, a converted mansion consisting of four levels overlooking a massive dance floor, for the after-work party, which, apparently, doesn't start until after 12.

On another evening, feeling the need for a brooding, mellow scene, we opted for live music. Twenty pesos, about $6 U.S., got us a table at Club Atletico Fernandez Fierro, home base of the bar's namesake 12-piece act.

Led by a singer whose campy costume changes reflect the group's schizophrenic brand of updated tango, FF employs accordions, violins and a stand-up bass to deliver a moody set that, in the eyes of this foreigner, evokes the porteno ethos: one foot in a romanticized past, the other awaiting its spotlight on the world stage.

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