One of the wonderful things about Buenos Aires is that – though you’re welcome as a tourist to witness the life of the city – the porteños (the name for locals in this port city) don’t really attempt to package or perform it. Partly this is the result of simple indifference – Buenos Aires is known as the Paris of South America, and like Parisians the porteños are famously proud – but it resulted in an experience where, though I was always aware of myself as a foreigner, I very rarely felt like a tourist.

That being said, I wanted to catch a tango show while I was in town, and I’d heard that the best was at Café Tortoni. Tortoni is a landmark, the city’s oldest café – a place panelled in dark timber with bevelled mirrors, leadlight ceilings and waiters in black tie. Downstairs there are nightly tango shows. One evening I sat in the cellar, clutching my camera, prepared to embrace my inner turista. I was at a table with a family from Williamstown – Jacquie and Rod and their teenage son. Jacquie was avid, garrulous and clearly the family decision maker. She was also quite knowledgeable, and she chattered away about the highlights of their holiday while her son fiddled with their camera and her husband sat back, genial, with a beer.

The show was a perfect combination of dance and cheesy dinner theatre. Like jazz in New Orleans, tango had its beginnings in the brothels of Buenos Aires. The show made obvious the connection between the dance’s dynamics – the man advancing, the woman moving in concert but not quite acceding – and the negotiations between hookers and their clients. The female performers were vampish in black stockings, the males their boorish, slick-haired johns – it was pretty broad but it conveyed the music’s sexual charge. The band consisted of a double bass, accordion, viola, violin and piano; there was a singing waiter too who performed with a tea towel thrown casually over one shoulder. It was very entertaining.

I was emboldened to try the tango myself, and so the following night I took myself to a gay milonga, or Argentine dance hall, for a lesson. Up a flight of stairs on Calle Maipú there’s a room with battered white walls, a host of black-framed photographs and lamps turned down low in the corners. The instructor, Augusto, was dressed entirely in red – red vest, red trousers, red shoes – with his hair tied up behind his head in a black ponytail. I was paired with a Frenchman named Patrice, and, issuing instructions in Spanish, French and English, Augusto guided us through some basic steps. We took turns leading and following – a new sort of versatility – and every few minutes Augusto would stop us with corrections. I was not leaning forcefully enough into my partner; I was bobbing up and down like a cork at every step. Patrice was not a very enthusiastic partner, but at the end of an hour I felt that we had learned something.

Then the floor was opened to more experienced dancers, and sitting at a table I watched them for a couple of hours. Men danced with men, women with women – and it was clear that tango was not just a totem of “Buenos Aires” but a part of the routine life of the city. The nights start late in Buenos Aires – the class was not until ten o’clock – and as I sat past midnight in that shabby little hall the traditional music suddenly gave way to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man”. It was one of the trip’s perfect moments.

On my last day in the city, I made my way to La Boca, a port district famous for its brightly painted housefronts. The working-class inhabitants used to borrow paint from visiting ships; now the area is an unlikely patchwork of pinks, yellows and greens. It was my one disappointing experience in Buenos Aires. I had been warned that the streets surrounding El Caminito (the main strip) were quite dangerous; sure enough, as I took a taxi through La Boca, the contrast in poverty to the city centre was quite marked. Once there, I was faced with a strange, sharply delimited prospect: there were only three blocks down which it was safe to venture. The bright buildings were there, sure enough, but they now housed the tourist emporiums that are so blessedly absent from the rest of the city. The streets were crowded with stalls selling postcards and ponchos. Herds of buses nosed in to the top of El Caminito, spilling forth their cargos of tourists. Dressed in a Spanish drag of red and black, male and female hustlers worked in pairs, trying to place a battered hat on the heads of passersby, hoping they’d stop to pose for photographs. Dancers did the tango outside a dozen mediocre restaurants. The place had no lived reality – it’s all false image, all cliché. What made it doubly unpleasant was that there was no freedom of movement – there’s no way to wander, no way to experience it on your own terms. There are just those three blocks – beyond that is the real waterfront, too dangerous to see for yourself.

But that was very much the exception. There were times – stopping at the local panadería for my breakfast medialunas (small, sweet croissants), sitting in my apartment with a bottle of Malbec – when I felt like a porteño myself.