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9 Things to Know Before You Visit Buenos Aires

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This is the fourth installment of Alex Pollack’s experiences in Argentina. As he is now in his last week of language learning in Buenos Aires, he offers us a list of things he wishes he had known. Read parts one, two and three.

Blogger Jeff Barry calls Buenos Aires the “City of Faded Elegance.”  I think he’s onto something.

In the city there lies a tension: between respecting the classic European-style buildings and spray-painting them with graffiti.  The new melds into the old to create something neither modern nor antique, but rather, faded in elegance.

What follows is a list of nine things I would have liked to have known before I descended upon Argentina’s capital city.  (Feel free to add to this list in the comments.)

1. Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

Watch out for big bills.

If you hand a cab driver a $100 peso bill (the equivalent of $26 U.S.), he will study it in the light as if it’s an Ocean’s Eleven diamond.  Make sure to follow his lead and do the same with your change.  One driver gave me a $20 Uruguayan peso, and I realized this minor league heist only when I offered the same bill to a bartender on Florida Street.  He shot me a disappointed whatchu-trying-to-pull look, and I fumbled to explain that no, I wasn’t trying to pull the wool over his eyes for the prize of a warm Corona.

Other money notes:

  • The bills are wrinkled and thin.  Some are ripped; others are taped.  Feels like Monopoly money in your palm.  Handle with care.
  • Know the location of more than one ATM in your area.  Why?  They run out of money. I was skeptical of this, until it happened to me at 8pm on a Tuesday.  The screen said to try again later.  It apologized.  I did not forgive it!
  • If you want to ride the buses and the subway, carry coins. There’s a shortage of these smaller monetary amounts, so don’t blow them on bigger purchases (like breast implants, not that I was considering them, but they are popular in Argentina.  Let’s just move on.)

2. Watch your step

If they ever make an Argentine version of the Grand Theft Auto videogame, expect less shooting and hooking and more cracked-tile sidewalks with curls of dog waste.

Beware of buses that speed up when they see pedestrians in the crosswalks, and parallel parkers who squeeze into tight spaces at lunch hour (One afternoon, I witnessed a guy get lightly clipped by a backing-up sedan.  Uninjured, the guy kept walking, cell phone to his ear.  He knows the game.)

3. Watch your step, part deux

To protect my victimized classmate’s identity, I’ve removed his face.

I met him on my birthday, at the precise moment this picture was snapped.  I’d known him before as only  “The German Guy Who Got His Ass Stabbed by a Crowbar and Almost Got Robbed.” “Almost,” because he reportedly fought off the Argentine teen/wannabe crook with martial arts.   “Does anybody not know about my ass?” he shouted to the surrounding circle of revelers when I told him I knew his reputation before I knew his name.

Two students from Expanish Spanish School were robbed; one at 2 in the afternoon.  Some people defend Buenos Aires and say this kind of stuff happens in every big city.  That may be true, but it was disconcerting to hear of two robberies and one buttocks assault within my first four days in Argentina.

One gray morning, I walked through the strangely empty streets of Retiro towards school.  I heard a voice maybe ten feet behind me: “Hombre, hombre, hombre.”  I was in my hoody so I pretended I couldn’t hear. There was nobody around.  It was raining.  “HombreHombre?”  As I approached a crosswalk, a cluster of other people appeared and I heard no more “Hombres.”  Perhaps this was more innocent than I imagined, but still, I felt lucky.

The general consensus is that robberies in Argentina are not chase-and-catch you affairs.  If you keep walking and try to stay within sight distance of other groups of people, you should be alright.  In other words, watch your ass.

4. Enjoy the steak.

Google “best steaks in the world” and you’ll find “steak buenos aires” listed under related searches.  It’s not just hype.  Go to a local parilla and you have a good shot at scoring a well-cooked, well-seasoned bife de lomo or chorizo for a little less than $10 US.  A good example can be found at Lo De Al on Viamonte.

That splash of color you see is chimichurri, and in my experience I’ve had to specifically ask for it to accompany my order.  Chimichurri adds a beady spicy-sweet swirl of parsley, garlic, oil,  vinegar, and red pepper flakes to an already solid steak. (And Argentina is not a spice-friendly country.  They like things bland here.  I’ve had the same luck finding spicy mustard here as I had finding the Tooth Fairy when I was a first grader.)  The juiciest, most tender steak I’ve eaten so far has been at La Trapiche, where the chorizo was more expensive but worth every succulent bite.

If you don’t like steak, you can try the omnipresent pastas, pizzas, or jamón. (Ham.  In the typical Buenos Aires restaurant, you’ll find dozens of variations of ham-based entrees.  This is the reason Babe 3 will not shoot in Buenos Aires.)

Other food notes:

-      Don’t be flustered when you look at your receipt and see you’ve been charged a few pesos for cubierto.  That’s a sitting fee, and it’s common.  Don’t complain.  Just thank God you weren’t stabbed in the ass.

-      No tap water, only bottled.  No refills.  No ice.

–    Ethnic food?  In Palermo, you can find Japanese and Mexican cuisine, among others.  I haven’t had the opportunity to try many of these eats, but to locate them I’ve had to rely more upon the Lonely Planet tell-me-where-to-go brand of travel rather than the friend-of-a-friend-wandering-and-finding kind.

5. It’s the holiday season, run for the coasts!

You’d think that with a population of about 13 million people, Buenos Aires would have restaurants open on Christmas or New Year’s Eve.  You’d be wrong.  The tendency among Argentines with the means is to flee the city for the holidays and vacation in Punta Del Este, Uruguay or Mar del Plata.  For those left behind, Buenos Aires is practically a ghost town.  On New Year’s Eve, it took me twenty-five minutes to find a taxi, this after a dinner of cheese and crackers. (For a restaurant I’d looked up, down and around Florida Street, one of the most bustling, tourist-friendly streets in the city, but even McDonald’s had shut its doors.  McDonald’s!  In fact, a cafe closer to my apartment had a sign in its window that said it would be closed through January 15.  I’ve heard of siesta, but this is insane.

6. Learn Spanish!

After taking three weeks of group classes, I feel good endorsing Expanish Spanish School.

My teachers have been friendly and skilled at pointing out my conversational errors.  School hours are typically 9am-1pm Monday-Friday, with a few fifteen minute breaks in between to check e-mail or sip mate.  (For program costs, please check out the first post in my series.)  If you’re not wanting to spend money, you can still practice your Spanish through intercambio (language exchange with locals; if she wants to learn English and you want to learn Spanish, you two can meet for conversation practice where time is divided between both languages.) Conversationexchange.com is a great resource for intercambio.  Finally, watch tv!  It’s not the boob tube if you’re learning Spanish through the subtitles of Austin Powers in Goldmember.  (For the record, “shagadelic” does not translate.)

7. Don’t get lost

Bring your cell phone from home.  You might be able to use it in Argentina with the help of a SIM card you can buy for 10 pesos from an easy-to-find Claro cell phone shop.  If you have an address, Google Maps can help you get around. Know that you might get lost when streets change names and Google doesn’t tell you. (Then again, I’m notorious for getting lost, so maybe you won’t run into problems if you’re savvier than I am.)

8. Beware of the flip-flopping seasons

Argentina is in the Southern Hemisphere, where down is up and right is left and winter is summer.  Study the temperatures before you visit, because it’s not enough for someone to tell you Buenos Aires is “cool” or “kind of warm.”  That vague talk led me to wasting space in my luggage with a leather jacket I’ll never have to wear in an Argentine summer.  (Whether I should be wearing a leather jacket in the first place is another issue altogether.)  Speaking of summer, air conditioning is sporadic in Buenos Aires, to the point where a taxi or a restaurant that does have it proudly advertises as much on its windows.   (The fan store?  Closed for the holidays.  Did I mention siesta?)

9. Learn to Love the Love

Argentines aren’t just passionate about the tango.  They’re passionate about making out.  Hard.  In public.  I’m talking tongue-on-tongue action on busy street corners and in cafe lines.  My British friend Mark put this phenomenon into perspective as we watched a couple getting hot and heavy at the crosswalk.  “It’s like a  desperation,” he said,  “survival by loving each other when the city’s old and falling apart in the background.”  Faded elegance indeed.

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25 Responses to 9 Things to Know Before You Visit Buenos Aires

  1. Migration Mark January 7, 2010 at 12:05 PM #

    Brings back some fantastic memories of living in BA about a year ago. I would reinforce number 4, or BEEF. For the first month I went crazy on beef, buying over a kilo every night and frying it at my friends apartment. We got to the point where we would eat practically raw. Stunningly delicious!

  2. Steph January 7, 2010 at 12:17 PM #

    That meat really does look delicious Alex! Think it’s lunchtime…

  3. bill January 7, 2010 at 8:09 PM #

    The food in Argentina is absolutely awful and expensive to boot. If you want to please somebody, tell then you’re taking them to Ventura Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley (California) and they can order anything.

    The Argentines just don’t understand food at all. It is either modern, western styles in tasteless potions or traditional like empanadas, and again tasteless.

    • Pablo January 22, 2014 at 11:12 PM #

      I completely disagree with your food impression. Mostly argentinean dishes own their origins to italian or spanish dishes, bot countries are consider to have two of the best cuisines all over the world.
      However, if you rank the dishes only considering how much chili they come with, then I can get your whole point.
      I would rather recommend you to go back and try some really argentinean meatcuts such as mollejas, criadilla, lengua, chivito served with salsa criolla or chimy churry. The you tell me.

      • Steph January 23, 2014 at 10:28 AM #

        Hi Pablo, I don’t find this post to be overly critical of Argentinean food? This was a guest post but I also lived in Buenos Aires for 4 months and tried all of the dishes you mention (my husband’s family is Argentinean). The food is fantastic but they definitely don’t embrace spices the same way that some other countries (even Italy) do.

  4. Alex January 7, 2010 at 10:46 PM #

    I agree, to a point. I had an especially ugly meal at a restaurant called “Mala Cara,” which roughly translates to “Bad Face.” Why I chose to eat there, I don’t know, but the salad was tasteless and expensive. This country also overdoes it with the ham. But I’ll defend their steaks!

  5. brian January 8, 2010 at 2:07 PM #

    The beef I knew about.

    The buttocks assault…I did not.

    Great article all around. Thanks!
    .-= brian´s last blog ..Guest Post – I Love Japan but it is Time to Go =-.

  6. Nancy January 9, 2010 at 5:17 PM #

    Great tips!! I’ve been following your series here. I’m finishing up a 5 week stay in Argentina tomorrow. I wish I had known these before finding them out the hard way (like ATMS running out of money, watching the sidewalk, etc…) Love, love BsAs. I can vouch for the great food in Palermo too. Not only does it have great ethnic food, but good vegetarian options for vegans like me. :)
    .-= Nancy´s last blog ..End of the Year at the End of the World =-.

  7. topiwale January 10, 2010 at 10:55 AM #

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  8. Dawson Russell January 10, 2010 at 12:42 PM #

    First off good to “meet you”. I am new to the whole travel blogging thing but look forward to making some connections with like minded travelers. Thanks for this blog! Im leaving for India tomorrow but plan on trying to get to Buenos Aires sometime this summer.

    • Steph January 10, 2010 at 2:28 PM #

      Hi Dawson, thanks for stopping by! Good luck in India!

  9. cata January 10, 2010 at 5:37 PM #

    im a local and its pretty sad to admit that each and every one of these things is true, year round!
    the mugging is not like in every “normal” city, its extreme, constant and on the rise.

    Thought I’d clarify…
    the whole not finding restaurants/taxis on new years eve, new years eve and januray 1st are THE national holiday that EVERYBODY takes off of work.

  10. ayngelina April 4, 2010 at 5:16 PM #

    Oh man, I had no idea about the muggings. Hopefully by the time I’ll be a more careful Canadian. But great post as a primer to visit.
    .-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Where to eat in Cancun =-.

  11. Jerri April 8, 2010 at 1:24 AM #

    All these things are true. As for food, including amazing steak I gorged myself on dulce de leche, $4 malbec wine (that costs $30 back in the states!) and mate. Loved BA!

    Jerri Do It While You’re Young
    .-= Jerri´s last blog ..Why I travel Where I Do… =-.

  12. Adam November 11, 2010 at 1:09 PM #

    Hmmm, in our month in BsAs back in 08-09, we never once felt unsafe or heard of anything shady going on. We had an apartment in San Telmo, and we walked the streets there and Palermo at all hours of the night. Odd that I’ve read this a few times lately. Has there been an unusual rise in crime in the last 2 years?

    You have some great tips here, good job. I’ve been focusing on Argentine on my sight lately as well, and I’m going to have a bunch of information the next couple weeks on BsAs.

  13. Chris March 14, 2011 at 10:57 PM #

    Just got back from BA. Unbeknownst to me, Carnival is now a holiday for the first time this year. It was definitely a ghost town for the weekend before and the Monday and Tuesday of Carnival.

    Never once felt unsafe or nervous.

    Sidewalks in BA are have multiple problems. They are usually too narrow for more than 2 people to walk side by side. Meanwhile you are trying not to break ankles/knees/faces from the cracked and crumbling concrete. The condensation dripping from air conditioners above can be avoided by jumping into the street or jumping toward the edifice. Dog shit must also be avoided at all times. When it starts getting dark the piles of garbage build up. Then the garbage pickers come out and start tearing each bag of garbage apart searching through them for random items. Have I missed anything?

  14. jake54 October 14, 2011 at 2:15 PM #

    Sorry but Argentina is the worst place where you could learn spanish, their spanish is totally useless outside argentina, maybe in uruguay. but that’s it.

    • Steph October 14, 2011 at 3:01 PM #

      Not true, my boyfriend has been using his Argentine spanish all over South America. It sounds a little different but it gets the job done.

      • Alex October 25, 2011 at 11:06 AM #

        Preach it, Steph!

  15. Diana - Living in DC January 30, 2012 at 3:37 PM #

    I’m a fluent spanish speaker, and the Spanish in Argentina is good anywhere. Every country in South & Central America has a different accent, but the language is the same. Just image a New Yorker talking to a Texan…. :)

  16. Danielle January 9, 2014 at 8:34 PM #

    This is so helpful! My fiancé and I are going to Argentina for our Honeymoon and while we’ll only be in Buenos Aires for a bit, I’m glad I found this post! Hopefully the small amount of high school spanish that I remember will get us by language wise.

  17. Katy March 20, 2014 at 6:48 PM #

    I just finished a month in Buenos Aires and came here to see if there was something important I missed. I feel like almost everything was spot on though! The only thing I would point out is that you say to drink bottled water. I’m from the US and I drank tap everywhere and I was totally fine. All of my friends, tour guides, hostel workers, etc, also agreed that the tap water in Buenos Aires is completely safe. Its also much cheaper than buying bottled every time. :]
    If you were to update this you might want to mention the Blue Dollar. Their economy is very unstable and the Blue Dollar is definitely something to know about.

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