Alone, techless, and unable to speak the language, one writer finds the best way to understand the city is to order a drink.
It’s a sticky-hot night in Buenos Aires and I am walking endlessly toward dinner. I had set out an hour earlier from my hotel. I followed the western edge of the Río Dársena Sur north until it spilled out into the bay, then pivoted into the crooked streets of the Retiro district. I am carrying an umbrella. It rained earlier, a frantic, humid release, and you can still feel the threat of more in the air. I am stupidly wearing a blazer, which is light, but not light enough, and I am rotating through its placement options in 10-minute intervals, taking it off, draping it over my arm, or throwing it over my shoulder whenever the skin it is covering becomes too slick with sweat. I am not lost. The street with the restaurant I am looking for is somewhere off this road, Avenida Santa Fe. I have been paying attention to signs. I am not lost, I am sure of that.
At the moment, though, I have no way to know if my certainty is justified.
Think about the last time you were ever truly on your own. I don’t mean simply solo; I mean disconnected from the portable, infinite answer machines we now carry with us everywhere. When was the last time you wanted information—an address, a route, a translation—and couldn’t simply ask your phone? Can you remember? That was how we used to travel. It wasn’t all that long ago.
It feels like forever.
I’ve come to Buenos Aires to try it again. I remember it, a decade ago. In Paris, without the help of a smartphone, walking tangled roads until I understood their logic, picking restaurants because it looked like people inside were having fun, not because I’d read a review somewhere. This was before my first iPhone. Before Instagram and all that. Before I became a travel writer, a complicit contributor to the world of overworked itineraries. Before I learned the research tricks that can unlock a city from afar.
I know, for instance, that the photos submitted by users on Yelp and TripAdvisor are the best way to handicap a must-hit list, deprived as they are of staging, or good light, or good angles. I lean on these bad photos religiously—they’re honest in a way that professional, commercial photography never is. I can find a city’s coolest restaurant this way in a single afternoon, from 3,000 miles away.
This has been a precursor to every trip I’ve taken for the better part of seven years. It is, I admit, not cool. It is orderly, analytical, somewhat predatory. It has more in common with detective work than wanderlust: I develop a series of assumptions about a place using the information available, then visit it largely for the thrill of proving myself right.
These were the rules: No looking things up in advance. No looking things up while I’m there. I was to navigate the city techlessly.
What I had not done in a long time was embrace a locale on a human level, without an agenda, without advance work, without the framework of someone else’s advice. I began to wonder what I was missing out on—what kind of spontaneity my digital investigative work was stripping from my travel. The mere thought of such a trip terrified me. That seemed as good a reason as any to take one.
So I booked a ticket to somewhere I had never been. And then I didn’t google it.
These were the rules: No looking things up in advance. No looking things up while I’m there. I was to navigate the city techlessly. An added challenge: I don’t speak Spanish. Not even a little.
On my first day in Buenos Aires, I wrestled with a confusion that bordered on paralysis. I didn’t know where to start. My hotel, the Faena, was in a neighborhood called Puerto Madero, a small bastion of high-end apartment towers. The hotel itself was cool in a way that gives its guests a home-field advantage: It has a fun bar, a couple of good restaurants, a pool that’s treated by some locals as a destination. That is the world inside the Faena. The area that surrounds it is glassy and quiet.
I found my hotel on a paper map that I purchased at the airport. The map did not show me where the coffee shops are, or where the young people eat, or where to find stores I might like—pieces of information I tend to be armed with before I’ve even touched down. So I traced a square around my hotel and set out on foot.
That’s how I spent my first afternoon. I got a feel for the place’s aesthetics, the canyon-like cityscape against its broad Parisian avenues, the alternating gloss and decay of the new apartment buildings and strips of battered convenience stores. I started to understand the way the city looks, but I figured out very little about how to dive into it.
By evening I decided that I needed to change my tactics, so I hopped into a cab (cabs are ubiquitous here, and cheap) and asked to be taken to the Four Seasons. In big cities there tends to be a Four Seasons. Cabbies can always find the Four Seasons. And frequently, the Four Seasons has a good bar. I am neither a lush nor an extrovert, but a good bar can put training wheels on a city. At the very least, there’s usually a solid burger. And there’s almost always easy conversation with your fellow drinkers.
I added a new rule to the list: No expectations about what it means to travel correctly—no comparisons to how I would move about when fully armed with a smartphone. Under normal circumstances, it’s fair to say that the lobby bar of a fancy hotel would not be my first stop. But I could’ve done worse. I ordered another drink.
Dinner concluded, I decided to walk home. Along the way, I passed a flower shop with a crowd outside smoking cigarettes. It was 11 p.m., and the shop’s lights were on. Nobody was buying flowers.
I hung outside for a few seconds, then I saw a door inside the shop open and reveal a glow, a staircase, noise. A string of twentysomethings filed out.
I know this stuff. This was a bar. Better yet, it was a speakeasy. And I’ve been hanging around the cocktail world long enough to know that wherever there are bars pulling off the speakeasy thing—wherever groups of people stick around outside to smoke and then head back in for more—there’s usually something worth seeing. I waited for the smokers to stomp out their cigarettes, and I wandered inside right behind them.
For a moment, I worried that I was wasting a night, but then the burger was spectacular and so were the cocktails. And what does it mean to waste a night, anyway?
That first night was a good start. There was indeed a bar hidden down a flight of stairs beneath the flower shop: Florería Atlántico. It was packed, standing room only, but the drinks were solid, inventive fare: tiki with a floral bent. The city, it seems, has a rich cocktail culture; no bar so fully realized could exist in a vacuum.
I was determined to find more, hungry, at this point, to discover something organically about Buenos Aires, to get to know at least one little facet of the place. I had followed a crowd into a bar. Perhaps the people in that bar would lead me to another, and so on. By the end of my trip, I might get a sense of how, if I lived there, I would experience the city. I decided to make this my goal.
I explored closer to home the next evening, ducking into one of the posh-looking restaurants along the waterfront. For dinner, I chose a place called Chila, on the grounds that it seemed marginally smaller and less ostentatious than its neighbors.
I was wrong. It was a tasting menu kind of place. I was served two amuse-bouches, sweetbreads, and a very delicious sponge of some sort. A group of 11 American men in khakis and sport coats came in for a celebratory dinner. They drank innumerable trays of champagne. Sitting at the restaurant’s bar, I directed a universally translatable eyebrow raise at the bartender, the one that means “These guys, huh.” He laughed. “Petroleum industry,” he said.
So now I had a list. But how to use it? The next night, I unfolded my map on the floor of my hotel room and found Malabia Street. Andrés had told me that on this street, in the Palermo district, there is a cocktail den hidden behind a sushi restaurant. I jotted down a grid of the streets in the area on hotel stationery and stuffed it in my pocket. I waited for the rain to die down, then I set out. It was 7:30 p.m., 90 degrees, and I had no idea how far I was about to walk.
Four miles. An hour and a half later, I am where this story began, sweating beneath my blazer on Avenida Santa Fe. And I’m beginning to feel nervous. I’m now concerned that my sense of how far one thing on the map is from another thing is drastically flawed. Malabia Street is nowhere to be found. I keep walking. That’s when I see another familiar word.
Anasagasti is the other bar that Andrés mentioned, and here is a street called Anasagasti. I couldn’t find it on my map, but now that I’ve stumbled on it, I’m elated to think my walk may be over. It’s just after nine. I don’t have the exact address of the bar, but the block looks like it dead-ends at the next intersection.
I walk up and down, up and down. The street is dark, lifeless. There is nothing that seems even remotely bar-like. I lean against a building. I peer into a couple of windows. Here, I will admit that I yearned for a cell phone, if only to track down the street number at which to present myself—somewhere at least to knock. Instead, I lean. And walk. And stare. Eventually, I return to Avenida Santa Fe and keep walking. Fifteen minutes later, I finally come to Malabia Street.
Nicky Harrison, the sushi restaurant with a secret cocktail bar, presents a different issue: I can’t get in. The bar doesn’t open until 10, I’m told, and the restaurant is full. Come back later, the doorman says. This street, Malabia, has more going on, but most of the restaurants are equally packed. And then I see it: a glowing green awning, something that instantly reminds me of home.
It’s Shake Shack. Actually it’s called Dean & Denny’s, but it’s either affiliated with Shake Shack or a spot-on rip-off. The menu is nearly identical, and the whole thing is accented in the exact same shade of green.
Remember the rules? There are no wasted nights on this trip. Reader, I have a hot dog. We’re not playing the game where I make myself regret that choice. Argentina wants me to experience its Shake Shack rip-off, and I am happy to oblige. I’ve been walking for two hours in 90-degree South American humidity. I need sustenance.
Sated, I return to Nicky Harrison. The bar, I’m now told, is “members only,” but I talk my way in. (It’s simpler than it sounds. Step one: The blazer. Always a blazer. Dark blue, simple, soft shoulders. Step two: A small footprint. I’m just going to take up a single barstool, and there’s usually one open between couples. Pointing that out can tip the doorman’s scales in your favor. Step three: Confidence. You’re supposed to be here. Say it over and over to yourself until both you and the doorman believe it.)
I sit at the bar with a magazine, watching the bartenders patiently churn out drinks. One of them is making the same thing over and over again, a submission, he tells me, for a Best Cocktail in the World contest. I try it—a frothy, light, citrusy concoction in a coupe glass—and am pretty sure he has a chance.
Then he makes me something called the Mr. Bukowski, an ingenious combination of bourbon, beer, espresso, cocoa, and tobacco, mixed in perfect balance and served in a smoke-filled beer bottle. My expectations for this drink are not great, so the fact that I love it leaves me speechless. Before I leave, while I’m still in awe, the bartender adds four new bars to my list.
I stumble out of Nicky Harrison and decide to walk past Anasagasti on my way to hail a cab. This time, a smoker outside reveals its location. (Of course, there is no posted sign.)
I drink a Penicillin here, a whiskey cocktail invented at a bar in New York in the early aughts, now considered a modern classic. Here, it’s served in an actual syringe. I squirt the liquid into a glass of ice and ask the bartender to add to my list of bars. He looks it over. “No,” he says. “This is good.”
The truth is, at this point, I have a Gollum-like obsession with my list. It is getting tattered from riding along in the breast pocket of my blazer, but the brain trust that helped compose it knew what they were doing, and I am pledging allegiance to their recommendations. It is a good list. And I’m not vetting it, like I normally would. I’m out there living it.
A quirk of my mission is that it has led me to see most of the city at night. This is not to say I haven’t ventured out during the daytime. I have. But without the focus of a new bar to see, the wandering is just that: wide loops around the hotel, by the water, or through the adjacent parks, beautiful walks that I probably would’ve Instagrammed if that had been an option.
Here’s the thing: This place doesn’t exist. Or it does exist, but it has no signage. Or it has signage, but is closed on Thursday nights. Or I just can’t find it. Ten minutes after arriving at the intersection where it’s supposed to be and making two trips up each street splitting off from it, I decide to call it a night. Without my cell phone, I can’t confirm the exact street address or pull up a photo of the storefront. Without a solid grasp of Spanish, I can’t stop a local and ask for a quick assist. I’ve got no fallback plan.
On my way back to the hotel, I have a couple of pints at a loud, fun, beer bar called Cervelar and reflect on my kneecapped plans. What of the No Wasted Nights rule? Why did it feel like such a letdown to leave that spot unvisited? Surely this type of thing has happened before—for millennia, humans did without cell phones to point them in the direction of poorly marked restaurants. So maybe it’s the obvious thing. Without technological help, this is exactly as adept a traveler as I am—the lost man on a strange street in a faraway place.
Two weeks later, back in New York, I open my laptop and type in Doppelgänger. There it is, in an instant: It is exactly one block south of where I thought it was. It wasn’t closed or hidden. I just had the streets wrong.
I click on Google Street View and do a digital walk-by, one of those small acts of magic that’s so easy to take for granted. Now I’m standing on the corner, looking at the front of the bar. In the catalogued image of the building, the bar is closed (it was daytime when the Google van did its drive-by), but I think I would have recognized it if I’d come upon it that night. I click on the sidewalk and my perspective moves, shifting down the block as though I’m walking. I keep clicking, keep walking. The storefronts are as impenetrably foreign to me as they were when I saw them in person. I reach the end of the block and zoom back out into the standard, top-down map view, and now everything is clearer: a grid of buildings marked with icons, fully annotated, all that I could ever want to know at the click of a button. Next time, I decide, I should probably use this, too.