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Explore the fascinating rhythms of Buenos Aires

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — A native of Buenos Aires, and a proud Argentinian, told this joke to sum up the country's reputation in South America.

Three South Americans are walking together as a rainstorm begins to drench them. Thunder booms and lightning flashes.

The Bolivian covers his head. "Ay, my bad luck never ends."

The Chilean cries, "Let's run for shelter!"

The Argentinian just smiles between lightning strikes. "God is taking pictures of me again!"

Walking the streets of Buenos Aires, that streak of hubris is evident. Women click by in tight black dresses and Italian heels. Men dressed sharp as knife blades speak into their cell phones. The buildings and broad avenues speak of empire.

The dance of Buenos Aires, naturally then, is the sexy, outrageous, mesmerizing tango.

In transit from one place to another, I had only a couple of days to explore the city. And that's what I most wanted to see: the tango. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Great Wall in China, the tango is an iconic tourist cliché. But, like the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall, it's a wonder that must be seen to be believed. Or so I'd heard.

When I stepped out of the hotel in the early morning light on a summer day in February, the air was as heavy as a backpack loaded with sand. I did not see then, and do not see now, how anyone could be moved to dance in such heat.

I wondered about the wisdom of even a slow shuffle when I saw our tour guide approaching us with a clipboard in hand. A walking tour of Buenos Aires was the order of the day.

After introducing himself as Jose Benclowicz, he handed me some change. "We'll be traveling by bus, and this is your fare."

We hopped off the bus at San Martin Square.

The square is shaded with magnificently sprawling Ombu trees and centered on a massive statue of Jose de San Martin, the general who drove the Spanish out of Chile and Argentina.

San Telmo neighborhood — abandoned by the wealthy during epidemics in the 1800s — has been redeveloped with tango bars.

There Benclowicz told us of Buenos Aires' humble beginnings.

Spanish conquistadors tried to create a settlement in 1535, but the Karandias Indians drove them out. A second Buenos Aires (a sailor's idiom for good trade winds) was founded in 1580, near the mouth of the Rio de la Plata.

Pointing to the French-designed 19th-century buildings around the park, Benclowicz said they were also a legacy of San Martin's heroic efforts to win independence from Spain.

"After independence, Argentines rejected all things Spanish," Benclowicz said. "Colonial-era buildings were torn down, and the city rebuilt with French architecture and ideas."

The Recoleta is Buenos Aires' expensive neighborhood for the dead.

Next to a colonial-era church in the city's financial district, it's a massive maze of marble mausoleums, built in an amazing array of architectural styles. It's laid out with avenues and streets, and even within it, there is a pecking order. In the 19th century, a prime plot of Recoleta land went for about $500,000 in today's dollars.

We came to the crypt of the cemetery's most famous resident: Evita Peron, the wife of populist Argentine President Juan Peron. A former prostitute with a flair for public gestures, she was loved by the people and feared by the upper class and the generals who did their bidding. She died in 1952 and remains a popular figure in Argentina. A fresh rose was stuck into the black marble door.

By bus and foot we made our way to La Boca, the poor neighborhood on the south side of Buenos Aires where the tango was born. But it wasn't until the next afternoon that I saw the tango. A man and woman, both in black, held each other in tight orbit.

The dance told a story, of flirtation, seduction, rejection and ultimately union.

The dancers flew across the street, legs a blur, then the man spun the woman and bent her back until her ponytail touched the ground.

The song was over, the dance ended. The crowd was silent for a moment, then broke into applause and whistles.

I think if God had a camera, he would have been taking pictures, too.