Argentina’s Young Gay Oasis

Cordoba offers a college town ambience, change of pace for LGBT tourists

Have you been looking for a place to vacation where there are more beautiful men and women between the age of 18 and 23 than you could ever count in one day? What you need is a college town my friend, and we’re not talking a cold snowy one like Boston. We’re talking Cordoba, Argentina, that country’s second largest city where 20 percent of the population is made up of students.

You may already know Buenos Aires, the glamorous capital of Argentina, which has turned itself into South America’s gayest hotspot. Now, it’s time to venture into the interior, to see how the rest of this country lives.

With more than 300,000 students in Cordoba, it’s hard to imagine a place that defines “student town” better than this one. While a big city, with nearly 1.5 million people, and 3.2 million in the region, you still get the sense of a small community, one open to outside influences from the students who pour in from all over the country and cities large and small.

I’ve written tons about Argentina, and in all my years in Buenos Aires, I’ve met many, may men from Cordoba who consistently told me theirs was the better city. Which of course begs the question, what were they doing in Buenos Aires?

Still, it wasn’t until living in Buenos Aires last year that I got to met José Abud and Luciana Gay of the Cordoba-based gay travel company Gay and Lesbian Travel. When you meet them, you’d swear they were a happy straight couple. Yet, you’d be wrong. José is the gay one, and Luciana—or Miss Gay, and yes that is her real last name—is the straight one.

I spent a lot of time with them during my too short time in their city, finding out what makes it a place to venture to on its own, and for gays and lesbians in particular.

“Cordoba is full of young people, who are very open,” Luciana told me. “They just open their minds. Even if they come from rural parts of the country, this creates a certain tolerance.”

Today, the town’s liberal atmosphere, once vilified by the right-wing government, has proven of value to gays and lesbians living in Cordoba. Certainly it’s not as open as Buenos Aires, but it’s getting there. And according to Gay, “The university is a main factor,” in it all.

As an interior city with fewer international visitors, men here are more rustico according to Abud, meaning less fashionable and without the polish of the capital. Some are also less open because of it, but also less jaded, and you find a stronger nightlife that mixes lesbians and gay men.

It is still not as easy to be out, but Abud feels this is changing, partly because “tourism itself is a very big weapon to change society,” with gays from Buenos Aires and other countries venturing here. He gave the example of Salta, a once sleepy town in Argentina’s Northwest, changing through tourism, becoming a more open city, not just for gays and lesbians, but for everyone. “Now they are changing, because of tourism, they are dealing with gay people everywhere.”

The religious remnants of the city’s history are a major draw for that tourism. If it weren’t for Catholicism, there would never have been a Cordoba, nicknamed “The City of the Jesuits.” This history is most apparent in the city center, where the Iglesia Catedral, or the main cathedral, dominates Plaza San Martin. You can see historical buildings all over, but the city’s colonial roots are not as well preserved as I imagined after hearing so much about the city. The city threw down many important buildings over the years, and in some cases, it is digging up its history to this day.

Jesuits came to the area in the late 1500s and established what is now known as the Jesuit Blocks in the city center, which include churches and a university. I recommend a visit to this area, and taking a break at Student Union near the old campus. It’s a gawker’s paradise with all the young people with whom it is easy to strike up a conversation no matter how long it’s been since you set foot into a classroom. Have someone take you to the old campus building with a giant painting of the founding of the city.

By the early 1600s, Jesuits purchased land throughout the region, creating estancias to raise crops and animals, make wine, and support their work in the city. In fact the wine Lagrimilla de Oro, which literally means Little Tears of Gold, the first wine from the Americas drunk by the King of Spain, was produced in Cordoba.

By 1767, the Spanish crown, worried both about the Jesuit tendency to treat Indians well and also about losing power in the region, expelled them all throughout the empire, seizing their land in the process. Their estancias and churches fell into ruins, leaving us today with romantic hints of the past. In addition to the Jesuit sites, the Cabildo, or Old City Hall, houses a fantastic cultural center and a city tourism office.

Like Buenos Aires, Cordoba experienced massive growth at the turn of the last century, much of it in excited anticipation of the nation’s 1910 Centennial. A not to be missed example of this is the Genero Perez Museum whose building is a work of art in itself. Look especially for the room with the ceiling painting of turn of the century women in a gondola being pulled by white horses in Venice, a full moon overhead. It’s beautiful, romantic, and dreamy all at once, and was painted by Emilio Caraffa, one of the city’s most famous artists.

Caraffa’s own museum is housed in a gorgeous and imposing structure overlooking Plaza España in what is known as Nueva Cordoba, dating to the beginning of the 1900s. Oddly, you won’t find much Caraffa in his museum. The current show with paintings of Evita by the artist Santoro was fine by me, however, Evita freak that I am.

Some beautiful neo-classical buildings remain around Plaza España. Many have also been demolished to make room for high-rise apartments, but you still get a sense of the grandeur which once existed in this area. The Plaza is ornamented with modern sculptures, one of which recalls the Franco era in Spain. Avenida Estrada, the main student drag, is full of restaurants and small bars packed with young scholars. You might say there’s nothing gay about the area, though the simple pleasure of watching the young and good looking would change your mind.

Nearby is Parque Sarmiento with ponds where you can rent swan boats, go fishing, or simply walk around. But the highlight is watching young men playing soccer in the open fields. God created nothing more wonderful on this earth than then the legs and asses of South American soccer players, so come here and take a look at a particularly good selection of his work.

Gay, Abud, and I explored some of the nightlife in Cordoba. Two large clubs, Piaf and Club V, have great dance floors and get a mixed gay and lesbian crowd, as well as a few straight people who come for the music. Our first stop during the evening though was what is known in Argentina as a “pre-bar” where you go before going to the main club. It was called Beep—the Spanish pronunciation of our acronym V.I.P.—in a converted old house, with occasional drag and strip shows. We went early, but the place also fills up at about 6 a.m. or so with people who struck out overnight and are drawn by the backroom. The bar is at Sucre 171, just near the corner of Avenida Colon. It’s worth hanging out on this corner because that’s where the club kids hand out flyers for special events at the big clubs.

We also checked out Casablanca, the kind of restaurant that Argentines call a “resto-bar” which serves as restaurant and bar. This one is decorated pure white with bold colored accents. During the day I was told it’s all business and not gay at all, serving a downtown work crowd. At night though, the disco music pumps through, creating a loungy atmosphere as people gather for a light dinner and socializing on the white sofas before heading to the clubs. The owner Martin, is a hard worker, but extremely flirtatious. The conversations here were an interesting prelude to all that Cordoba would promise later in the evening. In a city full of students, there is so much that a tourist can learn, and teach.

Michael T. Luongo is the author of the Frommer’s “Buenos Aires First Edition,” America’s top-selling guidebook to the Argentine capital. Visit him at michaelluongo.com.

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