Sunday, January 25, 2009



Since announcing to my friends and associates the decision that I will be spending my semi-retirement years in Argentina there is one question that everyone has been asking---“Why Buenos Aires?” Well, I spent a couple of years searching the globe for the place where I would most like to spend at least the next decade of my life. As a travel writer I was easily able to check out Europe---including Eastern Europe and Scandinavia--- Mexico, the Southern United States, some Caribbean Islands, Central America and South America and upon my first visit to Buenos Aires in November 2007,
I knew I had finally discovered the ideal place for my emerging needs.
So there are numerous answers to that one simple question.
Firstly, the warm and friendly residents---known affectionately as portenos---welcome everyone from all over the world and seem to have a very cheerful charisma about them. Native Argentineans now making Buenos Aires their home plus the original Portenos and foreign residents, all enhance the international flair of this city. Secondly, the climate is very enticing with four distinct seasons---not like the eternal California or Florida summer--- but very temperate and even a mild winter. No hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes to worry about either. Thirdly, Buenos Aires is known as the Paris of South America and it comes by this reputation honestly as it is truly a cosmopolitan, sophisticated city in the heart of Latin America. Fourthly, the cost of living and real estate is so inexpensive that my small but hard-earned nest egg will stretch further and last longer here than almost anywhere else. And last, but not least, the political climate in Argentina has stabilized since their economic woes of the early new millennium and foreign investment along with a strong local economy is making this country one of the new hot-spots amongst the smart foreign and South American investors and appears to be on a continuing upward trend.
Having identified my reasons it is important to note that there is much more to life in this amazing capital city. Within this metropolis of about thirteen million residents there is a multitude of diverse and historic neighborhoods to evaluate and each with its own unique character. The upscale Recoletta, the trendy new San Telmo or the historic Palermo are just a few to mention. The local Latin flair and customs are divergent in each enclave. But some traditions are universal to the entire city. With dinner time starting at about 10PM this takes a little timing adjustment, but then the nightlife pulses with Tango and much more until at least 4AM and morning rush-hour doesn’t happen until 10AM. For portenos it’s all about living life beyond the workday and enjoying the fruits of your labor. So life in Buenos Aires also means a whole new body clock and Latin rhythm.
I was fortunate on my first trip to the city to meet the owner of ba4UApartments who, along with his English speaking team of consultants, provides a complete turnkey service of short-term apartment rentals, real estate consulting, legal services and interior décor services. This has made the entire transition very convenient even though I am thousands of miles away for most of the purchasing process.
Although I am currently linguistically challenged when it comes to Spanish, with the help of my new found amigos, I am managing to weave my way through the process to set up a new home in what I consider to be a Latin paradise. I am excited by the thought of my new residence not just in Buenos Aires but by the prospect of exploring all of the diverse regions and countryside that South America has to offer from the mountainous glaciers in the south to the arid north and the Pacific and Atlantic coastal vistas. Fodder for numerous fascinating travel stories in my future.
Finding the right apartment and navigating the complex purchasing process required the services of a local real estate agent who spoke English. Although the process is similar to what we are used to in Canada, I needed an expert from ba4Uapartments to guide me through the indigenous nuances and the Spanish language terminology.
Most of the fun about buying a home here is deciding where to live in this pulsating city and which neighborhood suites you best. I spent many hours walking the city neighborhoods---often losing myself in the architectural riches---over the course of two visits for a total duration of about one month. I eventually decided upon the popular Palermo which is a community in transition. It is a blend of old historic homes, cobbled streets, new high rise apartments, interesting boutiques and gourmet restaurants with a vibrant night life. It is adjacent to the largest parkland in the city which leads down to the Rio Plate waterfront, which is like living at the edge of Lake Ontario without the icy cold blasts in winter.
One major decision is to choose between a charming, historic Spanish building or a brand new high-rise. I chose the latter because my primary requirement was a minimum twenty meter swimming pool for my daily exercise to try to keep my tired, old body in shape with a daily work-out that I love. However, a studio apartment in the older classic buildings can be purchased for as little as US$90,000 while my two bedroom, two bathroom---must be ready for all those friends who want to visit--- 900 sq. ft. apartment with all the modern facilities like a gym and café on the 23rd floor with spectacular views, was US$200,000, still a bargain by today’s standards. Whatever your personal choice may be, for sure it can be found at the right price in this city of plenty.
Prior to making an offer on your choice of new home you will need to secure your Argentina tax number and for this you have to acquire a proof of residency certificate from the local police station closest to where you are staying in Buenos Aires. You must visit the police station personally and arrange for them to come and verify your temporary address, usually the next day, and issue the certificate. You have to remain in your residence from 8AM to 4PM on the date given to you by the police officer.
This led me to my first---and I hope my only---encounter with the Buenos Aires police! Even though I had been told that my Policía Bonaerense Officer would arrive at my apartment between the specified hours the next day I assumed it would be like the cable repair man or the furniture delivery truck arriving at the very last minute after I had spent the whole day imprisoned in my small apartment watching daytime soap operas on television---in Spanish, no less---and waiting patiently. Much to my surprise I was in my bathrobe, pre-shower, brewing my first pot of coffee at 10AM when my door bell rang. Fortunately in my caffeine-deprived condition the police officer only wanted to see my passport and efficiently issued my residency certificate with a friendly but insightful smile.
Then I took this certificate---along with my trusty local interpreter---to the tax office where I had to fill out the application form---only available in Spanish---and receive my tax number. This allowed me to actually commence the legal aspects of purchasing my new home in Argentina
Although similar to our home purchase process here in Canada there are some distinctly Argentinian property laws to be followed.
When you have decided on the property you would like to buy, the first step is to make an offer and pay the reserva---usually US$1000---which stops the vendor from showing the place to any other interested parties. The usual counter-offer process continues until both parties have agreed upon the purchase price.
One of the unusual rules to a home purchase in Buenos Aires concerns the real estate agent's commission which is divided between both the seller and the purchaser. Usually each party pays a three percent commission---sometimes four percent---plus a 21% VAT tax on the commission to the federal government. This is a separate financial transaction from the actual purchase and is usually paid when the vendor accepts the purchaser's offer.
To conclude the purchase you will need the services of an Escribano (Notary) who will search the title and the property rights for the past ten years---except in the case of new buildings---to ensure there are no mortgages or ownership rights attached to the apartment. The fees for this service range from 1.5 to 4 percent of the purchase price and you have the right to choose your own Escribano.
The next step is the Boleto---sales contract---which outlines the agreed upon price, financial terms and transfer of ownership date. Finally, upon possession of the real estate the Escritura will transfer and register your ownership with your name on the property title and this requires the services of your notary again. Financing is best arranged through your own local bank in Canada as mortgages for foreigners in Argentina are very hard to arrange and if at all, come with very high interest rates.
Throughout the process you will want to ensure that you are working with bilingual, reliable local representatives with an established history in Buenos Aires real estate.
Then comes the shopping! There’s very little point to bringing many possessions from your Canadian home at huge shipping costs as the prices locally are so reasonable and you will enjoy the fun of starting a fresh in your new home. When you see the price tags you will be pleasantly amazed. Probably not as much as I was stunned by the unbelievably low prices because I was unable to read the Spanish fine print on the price tag which I subsequently learned---after a difficult conversation with the salesperson involving my Spanish-English phrase book---stated ten easy monthly payments.
If you have decided upon one of the older Spanish apartments you might enjoy Sunday shopping for Spanish antiques in the San Telmo market and stores. Or if you’re going with the modern new apartment perhaps with a stone floor then the boutiques and designer furniture stores in Palermo will be more appropriate. Either way you will benefit from how low the furniture and houseware prices are compared to what you are used to spending at home. That is until you go to buy your television, sound system or computer as these items are all imported and come with a traditional North American price tag. But this is the only down-side to your Buenos Aires shopping trips and the rest of the time it’s like being on a shopping trip with prices from decades ago that are only a distant memory for most of us today.
So my best advice to anyone who is in the process of planning their retirement or looking for a second home with great rental income potential, is to visit Buenos Aires now and check-out the Latin American experience today while it is still affordable and accessible to foreigners who are thinking about their future needs. At the very least you will enjoy a unique vacation experience and, like so many others, fall in love with the magic of this Paris of South America. You might discover, as I did, a whole new life ahead of you and a retirement filled with fun and unique possibilities.


European Gay Style With Latin Flair
A warm and gentle climate coupled with the Spanish influence has made Buenos Aires the hottest destination in South America for gay vacationers seeking a genuine Latin experience from Tango dancing and historic architecture to elegant dining and vibrant nightlife. The city’s original European settlers came mostly in the nineteenth century from Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Exploring Buenos Aires, you will sense a sort of deja vù of Europe while you explore the splendid boulevards, classic architecture, plazas everywhere, extensive parks, and ever-changing style of Argentina's stunning capital city. You will quickly understand why this city is known as “the Paris of South America” populated by sophisticated Porteños as the local residents are known.
Buenos Aires is the gateway to Argentina and whether you are vacationing in the city or heading for the magnificent water falls at Iguazu, wine-tasting in the Mendoza vineyards, skiing at Bariloche, whale-watching at the Peninsula Valdes, glacier walking at Perito Moreno, or boarding a gay cruise ship, your time in Buenos Aires is certain to be memorable.
Perhaps one of Argentina’s most valuable tourist attractions is the low cost of living and shopping bargains to be found here. If a bottle of good wine or a liter of beer for two dollars sounds appealing then you will also be pleased to rent a cozy vacation apartment for just under two hundred and forty dollars per week. Even gourmet restaurant dining is affordable when a three course dinner with wine can readily be enjoyed for under twenty dollars Canadian per person. This is certainly the vacation bargain of the year which I have found during my travels.
Although there is no gay village in Buenos Aires the community is spread throughout the centre of town. The districts of Recoleta, Palermo and San Telmo are very gay and the local bars, restaurants and clubs are found mostly in these areas. People sometimes refer to the gay Barrio Norte district which isn't actually a district but includes parts of Recoleta and Palermo. However, many gay places are within a relatively short walk or inexpensive taxi ride of each other. These districts of Buenos Aires are some of the safest zones of any major city in South America and visitors should feel secure walking around day or night---however, sensible precautions should never be abandoned.

Sidewalk cafes, Argentinean beef grill-restaurants---renowned for the best beef in the world---and cheap shopping make this a wondrous gay destination. In 2002 same-sex civil unions were legalized in Argentina and the legal age of consent is sixteen. Over the last two years the city has become well known for its liberal attitude to gay life so that it has become one of the new choices for gay holidays. Buenos Aires now has over sixty gay discos, restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels, saunas, movie theaters, and possibly the best-looking Latin men you will see anywhere.
The gay scene in Buenos Aires, in common with other cities in South America, starts very late. Apart from one bar (Flux) and the cruising bars and movie theaters, nothing really starts until around midnight. Very few people arrive at discos until 2AM but then the discos quickly fill to capacity and line-ups occur, particularly on Saturdays. The principal discos and bars mostly operate from Thursday to Sunday but there are show bars with comedy drag and strippers open seven nights a week. Most of the cruising bars, cinemas and saunas are open seven days a week, with some being open 24 hours throughout the weekend.
Renting an apartment for your stay in the city will make you feel like a Porteño soon after you arrive in town. The convenience of having a well stocked kitchen and being in a residential neighbourhood rather than a tourist zone will prove to be very beneficial. In the gay Recoleta district ba4u Apartments offers a choice of thirty-five different luxury suites for rent daily, weekly or for extended stays. Each unit is modern, tastefully furnished with a contemporary bathroom and kitchen plus daily maid service and priced from approximately forty Canadian dollars per night with discounts based on the length of stay. The friendly English speaking gay staff at ba4u Apartments can arrange for airport transfers at a reasonable cost, provide you with local information, gay maps, and any assistance to make your stay in Buenos Aires the perfect holiday. This is one of the best gay vacation destination service companies in South America and highly recommended to ensure your vacation plans are hassle free.
The city occupies two hundred and two square kilometers with approximately three million residents and comprises a multitude of attractions so a tour guide is an essential to find your way around initially. The 2 Porteños local guides will make sure you have fun in Buenos Aires and help you to explore this incredible city with ease and they speak fluent English. Their GLBT tours are custom designed to suit your requirements in duration, price and venues. They can plan a Gay Gaucho (cowboy) Night in the country, a walking tour, a sailing day, a visit to the Tigre Delta Islands, Tango B’Tween Boys, B.A. From The Air and of course a shopping trip to take advantage of those incredible bargains like leather shoes for under twenty dollars! Gustavo and Mariano---the two Porteños---offer at a reasonable price unique activities, personal recommendations and assistance to make your stay an unforgettable, safe, and enjoyable time.
Traditions abound in Argentina and the Asado traditional beef entrée must be enjoyed at a grill restaurant where this dish is cooked and served. Dinner is always late and hardly ever before 10PM and that’s probably why the bars and clubs don’t get going until after midnight but rave until 7AM! Sharing Mate is a custom symbolizing courtesy and friendship whereby friends drink an infusion of hot water and yerba mate---a sort of herbal tea---from a container also called a mate and sipped through a bombilla tube. The usual greeting between same-gender or different-gender people is a kiss on the cheek which is so gay especially when followed by an embrace. These Argentinean customs soon become a way of life as you settle into this gay-friendly South American culture.
Finding your way around the city is easy with the buses---called colectivos--which run around the clock and the subterranean---undrground trains---connecting the city with five different lines. Taxis are also extremely cheap and easy to find on the major streets or by telephone reservation. Of course walking around the city is most pleasant but due to the size of Buenos Aires a ride from one district to another is often required. The Buenos Aires Day and Night guide and the BSAS Gay Map are excellent sources of local information and detailed maps to find your way to most of the local attractions. Even if you spend the whole vacation discovering the city there will still be more places to go and see the next time you visit this amazing city---and there most surely will be a next time!
Although there are too many attractions to mention in one travel story there are a few worthy of note. The area or barrio known as La Boca is the original old port of the city dating back to the early settlers in the 1500s from the Italian city of Genoa. This area is renowned for its colourful houses and main street---the Caminito---and other attractions including the La Ribera theatre, many Tango clubs and Italian Taverns, as well as La Bombonera, home of the famous football team the Boca Juniors.
The Plaza de Mayo in downtown is a beautiful park surrounded by the Casa Rosada---original seat of the national government and now the office of the President of Argentina----the Buenos Aires City Hall, the House of Culture, the Cabildo and the Cathedral. This is the most historic part of the city and every gay person remembers Madonna portraying Evita on the balcony of the Casa Rosada---don‘t they? There’s also the Museo Evita in Palermo where you can learn more about the fascinating life of Argentina’s most famous female Eva Duarte de Perón.
From the Plaza de Mayo a long walk down the Avenida de Mayo is rewarded with hotels from the beginning of the twentieth century, many cafes including the Tortoni Art Nouveau Café ---the city's first confitería (confectionery),established in 1858---where important artists gathered and theatres like the Avenida. At the end of this stroll through history is the magnificent Congreso de la Nación the home of the Chamber of Representatives and Senators of Argentina.
The district of San Telmo is the new up and coming gay neighbourhood where older homes are being renovated and antique stores abound. At its heart is the Plaza Dorrego with some of the city’s oldest architecture and sidewalk cafes which is home to the largest antique market on Sundays. Nearby is the Iglesia Ortodoxa Rusa in front of the Lezama Park. This is an example of magnificent 17th century Russian Muscovite architecture and is one of the city’s most distinctive buildings. Close to this you can also find the magnificent mansion which Madonna rented as her home-away-from-home during the four months of filming Evita.
Perhaps the most gay district of all is Recoleta where you will find gourmet restaurants, exquisite parks and plazas, the Cementerio de la Recoleta---where Eva Peron is incarcerated---and where many famous Argentineans are laid to rest. Also here, the Basilica Nuestra Senora del Pilar and the Buenos Aires Design centre are adjacent to the Plaza Francia where every Saturday and Sunday the largest outdoor crafts fair is held. This festive event is also a place where you can enjoy some of Argentina’s culture with outdoor performers of the tango, jugglers, acrobats, clowns, traditional dancers and more providing top notch busker style entertainment.
Like so many major cities Buenos Aires has some of the most beautiful inner city parks for urbanites to enjoy. The largest of which is the Bosques de Palermo---Palermo Woods---with three artificial lakes offering paddle boats and hydro cycles for exploring the waters and parkland. Among the trees and paths is the Rosedal---Rose Garden---the Zoo Garden, Botanical Garden, Galileo Planetarium and the famous Japenese Garden. Throughout Buenos Aires the trees seem to be greener than any you have ever seen before and the flowers seeem to have brighter colours than anywhere in the world. Especially in the Springtime---November in Buenos Aires--- when the city is the most vibrant you have experienced anywhere in your travels.
So put on your dancing shoes for a gay tango lesson, prepare for a sophisticated Latin culture, have your pink dollars or plastic ready for severe action and head to the gay Paris of South America----gay Buenos Aires. It will be a vacation full of memories and well worth the long journey to experience this vibrant culture. Oh, and did I mention the cheap Botox and Nip ‘n Tuck surgery?
Brush up on your Spanish and make it a refreshing winter holiday and arrive home truly rejuvinated---both inside and out.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Curacao Sunshine Destination

Curaçao---Gay Friendly Caribbean Island
As winter approaches gay snowbirds often begin their planning for that much needed winter-break somewhere sunny, warm and by the ocean. The Caribbean Islands have long been a favorite winter get-away destination for Canadians but they are not traditionally renowned for their gay friendliness. Just ask Rosie O’Donnell about the welcome she received in Nassau, Bahamas when her inaugural Family Cruise docked there in 2004 amidst a flurry of local anti-gay religious demonstrations. Or perhaps you’ve heard some of the stories about Jamaica and their homophobic behavior amongst some local residents. Well now there’s some good news as Curaçao proudly demonstrates their gay-friendly reception for GLBT tourists and welcomes you to their tropical island with some of the most beautiful white sandy beaches and luxury resorts in the Caribbean.
Located just a two and a half hour flight from Miami, Curaçao is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and is perfectly situated just outside of the hurricane belt. This Dutch influence may be partially responsible for the gay-friendly attitude of the local residents. On this tropical island you will find an eclectic mix of history and culture, which has served to create a Caribbean experience unlike any other. Also known for its eco-tourism and pristine diving conditions, Curaçao attracts the adventure traveler as well as those looking to unwind and enjoy its perfect climate. Visitors to the island will enjoy the thirty plus white sandy beaches, 18-hole championship golf course, amazing dolphin interaction program, casinos, gourmet restaurants, European shops and much more.
Curaçao’s rich history comes alive in the stunning architecture to be seen all across the island—especially in its capital city, Willemstad. Established in the mid-1600s, Willemstad’s diverse buildings recall the quaint designs of Amsterdam, with exquisite 17th and 18th century Dutch colonial buildings not to be found anywhere else outside of the Netherlands. Willemstad’s traditional Dutch styles were modified to accommodate the island’s dry and breezy climate, Caribbean accents such as verandas, porches, fretwork, and shutters were added. The pastel colour scheme introduced a bright, bold palette which distinguishes this island from many others. In 1997, the UNESCO World Heritage Site committee selected the historic city center of Willemstad—one of just six Caribbean sites chosen—because of its “outstanding value and integrity, which illustrates the organic growth of a multicultural community over three centuries, and preserves to a high degree significant elements.” Strolling around the town you can enjoy these sights along with many relaxing cafes, bars and restaurants.
Although there are no exclusively gay accommodations on the island there are many resorts who welcome the GLBT community with open arms. As a demonstration of their commitment to embracing gay travelers Hotel Kura Hulanda, Lodge Kura Hulanda, Avila Hotel, Hilton Curaçao, Floris Suite Hotel, Sunset Waters Beach Resort, Lions Dive Hotel, Papagayo Beach Resort, Habitat Dive Resort , Waterside Apartments along with Yellow Tour Info Center, Explore Curaçao and International Accommodations & Concierge Services all joined the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) to further their gay friendly statements with real support for the community.
The dedicated GLBT website lists the gay-friendly weekend hot spots, citing the gay gars being Limbo Bar (located at Keizershof in Otrobanda), Lyric's Café frequented by locals (located at the Waterfort Arches in Punda) and It's my Life (located near Yolanda snack at Groot Kwartier). Additional gay-friendly places are Mambo Beach which is the place to be every Saturday night while Tu Tu Tango is a Friday night hot-spot. Wet & Wild is the Sunday night destination, Ay Caramba on Tuesday nights and Cinco on a Thursday night. This selection of gay and gay-friendly venues is probably the largest number to be found on any Caribbean Island and provides a wide range of choices for gay vacationers to enjoy the nightlife after a day in the hot sun or enjoying a wide variety of aqua sports.

Naturally, with such beautiful white sandy beaches, the clear blue ocean and the perfect temperatures---nearly always around 80 degrees Fahrenheit---water sports are one of the most popular vacation activities. Almost every resort and hotel with a beach will rent snorkeling and scuba diving equipment to enjoy the underwater coral reef which begins within one hundred yards of most beaches. It is also possible to enjoy windsurfing, sea kayaking, jet skis, coral reef boat tours and much more.
At the Dolphin Academy visitors get the opportunity to meet dolphins and swim, snorkel or even dive with these special animals in six different programs. These are very reasonably priced and conducted with expert supervision for the experience of a lifetime amidst these fascinating intelligent creatures of the sea.
If you are looking for activities away from the ocean then Curaçao affords a unique combination of other outdoor activities.
The Hato Caves, open seven days a week, were formed below the sea level millions of years ago. With the Ice Ages the water level dropped down and Curaçao was born. The Hato cave covers an area of 4900 square meters, and is the home to the beautiful limestone formations, romantic pools, waterfall and the famous Madonna statue. Also inside the Cave is a colony of seldom-seen long nose fruit bats. Tours are on the hour starting at 10 AM to 4PM each day.
If you enjoy nature hiking along deserted paths then the Shete Boka Natural Park on the north eastern tip of the island offers a spectacular rugged coastline and numerous hiking trails. Huge waves thunderously pound the rocky coastline creating huge caverns and magnificent blow holes. You will also discover the breeding grounds for three species of turtles.
Yellow Tourism Solutions can take you on a Jeep Safari to explore the island’s central desert, northern coastline and underground caves. Or you can plan a horseback ride, rent a bicycle or mountain bike or a motor scooter to venture out to explore on your own . The numerous 17th and 18th century plantation houses are a fascinating part of the island’s history and the Landhuis Groot Santa Martha built in 1696 has been magnificently restored and is well worth a visit.
One of the island’s major historical attractions is the Museum Kurá Hulanda. It is an anthropological museum that focuses on the predominant cultures, ancestry and history of Curaçao. It offers a world-class chronicle of the Origin of Man, the African slave trade, West African Empires, Pre-Colombian gold, Mesopotamian relics and Antillean art. Set in the original dockland buildings from some of the historic sea-trading days of Curaçao’s past this is a fascinating step back in time to the island’s origins.
Local gay and lesbian residents create their own version of Pride celebrations each year at the end of September called the Wet and Wild Weekend. This a fun weekend full of parties, celebrations and festivities for the local GLBT crowd and visitors to the island. It includes parties in all the bars and clubs, a movie night on the beach, a midnight cruise and of course water sports at the popular Sunset Waters Beach Resort. This is a fun time when the gay community steps out and is highly visible around the island.
Several U.S. airline carriers fly to Curaçao and from November to April Sunquest offers vacation packages with direct flights from Toronto once per week.
So there’s no longer a reason to fear homophobia on the island treasures of the Caribbean. Without a doubt this gay-friendly paradise is destined to become the newest gay choice for a Caribbean vacation get-away. From the ocean playground to the historic sites, the natural unspoiled countryside, the spectacular nightly sunsets, gourmet dining and fun nightlife, every day can be filled with different holiday activities for a perfect vacation in the sun. Perhaps Rosie O’Donnell should consider Curaçao as one of the ports of call on her next Family Cruise---there‘s a guaranteed friendly welcome awaiting her arrival!
Be sure to pack plenty of suntan lotion as Curaçao is just a few degrees north of the equator and year-round the days are mostly hot and sunny. But that’s perfect to enjoy the crystal clear blue waters of the Caribbean Ocean and forget about the cold, snowy winter days---just for a while!