Buenos Aires Beat IV: The Cafés

From Las Violetas to your local joint, the Argentine capital has an idiosyncratic coffee culture

Staff writer E.R. Pulgar will be based in Buenos Aires, Argentina until January writing a bi-monthly column for Journiest called Buenos Aires Beat. In its fourth iteration, he guides us through the Argentine capital's fabled cafés.

It doesn't matter if it's New York, Miami, or Buenos Aires, the air of metropolis always brings with it a sense of exhaustion. Even in this wonderful city where everything seems to run at a much slower pace than what I'm used to, the jolt of the city remains. The traffic, the crowded streets, the tall buildings...even in a place like this, it's so easy to feel overwhelmed and alone. It's for this reason that café culture is so prevalent in so many cities. A café offers an escape from everything, a window to watch the tumult go by with ease.

This remains true in the Argentine capital, and although it was obvious that the cafés of Buenos Aires would have their own idiosyncratic flavor, I wasn't prepared for the absolute serenity that comes with it. If this city already runs far too slow for a New Yorker, the cafés are an absolute stand-still. You can walk into any of these places, from the more "legendary" cafés such as Las Violetas in Almagro or the famous Café Tortoni (which is now a kind of tourist attraction), and easily spend the entire day people watching, reading, or writing, far-removed from the outside world.

In that sense, it's a lot like the dreamscape of coffee that Patti Smith describes in M Train, a book I finished at a tea house in San Martín de los Andes, a mountain town in the Patagonia region. Sitting there and reading that book in the peace of the mountains made me miss the city, and once I got back, I immediately longed for that silence, and I found it in the cafés, the bars, and the hidden corridors of the city. What really leaves a lasting impression about these places, aside from the locals spending hours on end talking and laughing away from their schedules or in spite of them, is the immense variety of these places. They range from beautiful palaces of old-world charm to the posh-upscale locales in Palermo Hollywood. Even Starbucks has a place here, but the locals tend to stick to the already thriving local café scene, places in San Telmo such as La Poesía replete with portraits of Borges, Cortázar, and Sábato.

Maybe it's fate that I'm writing this from a café on busy Las Heras in Recoleta called 429 Cafe Bar. It's comfortable and quiet, and from the big windows the winding avenue buzzes with activity, with taxis, with crying children. I can see them, and I can't hear them over the sound of the barista brewing fresh cortado, or the low-buzzing of the chandelier with electric lights in the back. That even a relatively normal café like this can hold that kind of magic speaks volumes. It's in the cafés that, despite very obviously looking foreign, that I started feeling at home in this strange, marvelous city outside of time.

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