Buenos Aires City Guide

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Update 2/24/16: The blue dollar is dead as the currency was allowed to float in December 2015. All prices in pesos are way out of date because it has halved in value since this was written, but prices in dollars are about the same.

Update: How did I forget to add that if you enter on an American, Canadian, or Australian passport, you must prepay a $160 entry fee and print off your receipt for proof in order to enter the country? The one time fee is good for ten years of entry.

Pay here, and pay with a no-foreign-transaction-fee card to save yourself 3%.

I’ve been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina for about five weeks, and I wanted to share some things I’ve learned in case you’ve got an upcoming trip to la ciudad porteña. This is not anything like a guide book, and it’s a bit scatter shot. Feel free to ask specific questions in the comments.

1. The Exchange Rate

The official exchange rate, and that paid by banks and ATMs is about 5.1 Argentine pesos (ARS) to 1 dollar. There is a “blue market” in dollars here, though, where the dollar is worth about 8.4 pesos according to ambito.com, a leading Argentine financial paper

If you get 8.4 pesos per dollar instead of 5.1, that’s like getting a 39.3% discount on everything. Unfortunately blue market dollar transactions with crisp $100 bills in cuevas are illegal. Also keep in mind that you can’t cross US or Argentine borders with more than $10,000 in cash without headaches.

Because of the exchange rate situation, I’ll quote prices in pesos for consistency.

2. Prices and Quality

Prices here are very low. I think I can get by with about half the money I need in the US.

Taxis cost 9.1 pesos for flag drop + 4.55 pesos per kilometer. Today I crossed the city for 56 pesos. A similar length trip in Los Angeles would have been about $23 plus tip. And you don’t tip taxi drivers here.

Restaurants are very cheap here because of the cheaper groceries, and the much cheaper labor. A mountain of meat and potatoes at the high quality parrilla (meat restaurant) on my block costs 149 pesos and serves three men. I’ve eaten a lot of incredible meals here in the 60 pesos range for a steak, and had my share of empanadas at 6 pesos a pop.

I’m not saying you can’t spend a lot more than 100 pesos per person on a meal, drinks, and tip. But you don’t have to do that to eat like a king.

Argentina’s mighty steak reputation is well deserved. They barely season the meat here and rarely eat it with sauce–maybe chimichurri or salsa criolla, but never A1. And yet the meat never disappoints–it blows me away every time.

Groceries are cheap. Chicken breasts are about 25 pesos per pound. Filet mignon is about 55 pesos per pound. Beer is 8 pesos per liter and up. Wine is 15 pesos a bottle and up. I see a ton of wine in the 25 to 30 peso range that must satisfy most people as an every-day-with-dinner bottle.

Unfortunately the selection at the biggest grocery stores is paltry compared to even small American grocery stores. Produce selection is limited to what can be grown in the country in that season, and is generally of far lower quality than even the worst American grocery stores.

Also, imported products are very expensive. A bottle of Tabasco is 75 pesos. A bottle of Ragu pasta sauce is 50 pesos. For the best selection of imported products, gluten-free products, vegan products, and anything else not typically in the Argentine diet, head to barrio chino.

Rent is cheap. I am renting a furnished two bedroom, one bathroom apartment in an incredible building on what I would consider to be literally the best located block in the city. We’re paying $1200 per month, which is obviously a fraction of what one would pay for something like that in a US city–even unfurnished.

Cleaning service is incredibly cheap at 30 pesos per hour. Usually this is included in the cost of short term rentals.

Language classes vary a lot in price. You’ll find better deals with independent teachers. My roommate is paying 500 pesos per week for three two-hour sessions one-on-one with a teacher and one two-hour group discussion.

3. Language

Argentine Spanish is different than varieties with which you may be more familiar. The main difference is the voseo.

is replaced by vos and the verb forms related to vos are different than the tú forms you know. The good news is that through subtitled and dubbed TV and movies, they will understand your Spanish, no matter where you learned it.

The level of English here is low, but higher among the younger and wealthier, as in most places in the world.

4. Late Starts

I see most restaurants open noon to four and eight to midnight for lunch and dinner. Peak times seem to be 2 PM and 10 PM.

Also, like many places in the world, people tend to show up late here.

Night clubs don’t get going until after 2 AM.

5. Change Issues

Update 2/24/16: Not an issue any more as the biggest bill is worth about $6. When 200, 500, and 1,000 peso notes begin to circulate, you may have an issue breaking them.

Like many poorer countries, there is an issue here where taxi drivers, kiosks, and vendors might not have the correct change. You’ll make your life easier if you make sure to break your 100 peso notes at grocery stores, fast food places, or anywhere else that has a lot of cash to make change easily. Then you’ll have correct change when you deal with people who don’t.

6. Internet and Phone

Everywhere you go in Buenos Aires there is wifi. The speed isn’t quite as fast the US, but it is fast enough to stream live video without too much buffering.

I highly recommend getting a local SIM card even for short trips. The three big players are Movistar, Claro, and Personal, and they are equally detested. A SIM card costs 10 pesos, then you can load credit onto your phone at any kiosk. 3G internet is 1 peso per day. Calls and texts are surprisingly expensive, but a smart phone here should cost you a quarter per month of what you were paying in the states.

If you want to call back to the US, there are a lot of options. I use google chat inside of gmail for 1 cent per minute. It’s good sound quality with no drops.

7. Palermo: Where You Want to Be

Buenos Aires has a lot of interesting neighborhoods, but I think Palermo is the clear choice for where to stay and go out.

Palermo is (hilariously) divided into Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho by Avenida Juan B Justo. Both halves are fine. The main strip of Palermo is Honduras Street, which is packed with restaurants, bars, and clubs. The area is touristy and ex-patty, but there’s a reason: it’s the best place to hang out and live. There is a subte (subway) stop where I’ve marked with an X on the map. The parks in the northeast of Palermo are a popular place to run, bike, and rollerblade. Just beyond them is the domestic and near-international airport–Aeroparque (AEP).

I don’t see any chain hotels in Palermo; they are mainly in the microcentro. To stay in Palermo, check airbnb or stay at a boutique hotel.

8. A Few Tourist Destinations

I’ve been to a few tourist destinations. Here are my thoughts, though you might be better off consulting a guide book.

Plaza de Mayo is worth a stop at 3:30 PM on Thursdays to see the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo protest. The whole thing took less half an hour today including a media-covered speech that praised the current Presidenta.

The original cause is worth reading up on, and it’s amazing to think about the dedication of the madres. If you can combine this with checking out the Casa Rosada, which is right on the Plaza, it’s a worthwhile afternoon.

Boca is worth fifteen minutes, which is luckily all it takes to walk the two or three safe and heavily touristy streets. You can sit at an overpriced restaurant for a snack or meal, watch a simple tango, pose with a tango dancer for a tip, buy some touristy kitsch, and take a picture in front of the colorful buildings. Or you can skip the whole thing and not have missed much.

Recoleta Cemetary is totally worth the free visit. Evita is buried here in a (comparatively) simple mausoleum that is not well marked. Hint: she’s in the Duarte mausoleum. Far more interesting than her grave are the graves of presidents, lined with plaques commemorating anniversaries of their births and deaths. It’s fun to walk through the rows at random admiring the workmanship and inventing elaborate stories for the people buried here.

Chinatown is a really fun place to go shopping, though there probably isn’t much there for tourists.

Watch a soccer game. There are several teams in Buenos Aires in the first division, so almost every weekend you can go to a game in the capital. The big clubs, River and Boca Juniors, are much more expensive tickets. Also consult the World Cup Qualifying calendar. I have been to three World Cup Qualifying games, and they were awesome.

9. Cafe Culture

Every nice day in Buenos Aires is an excuse to sit on a corner and watch the world go by. Whether people are eating dinner, having coffee, or enjoying a cocktail, when the weather is nice, every corner is full.

It’s a slow, enjoyable pace of life that I see in a lot of Europe and rarely in the Americas. It’s actually not my preferred pace, but if you enjoy France, Italy, and countries like that, you will love Buenos Aires.

10. Kiss

If you are introduced to someone or greeting an old friend, and at least one of you is a woman, there will be a kiss on the right cheek. Enjoy!

And then something you should never talk about in polite company: politics…

Argentines have very strong opinions on the president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and her economic policies. A lot of times my banal questions to the taxista about how business is are redirected to his thoughts on her. If you like to talk politics or soccer, Argentina could be your heaven. Just be aware that people here have very strong views on the subjects.


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53 COMMENTS

  1. thanks for all the tips . how many days as a tourist should i dedicate to this city . is 2 full days engh ?

    which are your fav places yo eat ?
    what as a tourist i should must do ?
    is it safe at night in the palermo neighberhood ?

    i will be there in june end .

    thanks sgain.

    • I think the Palermo neighborhood is safe at night. Exercise normal caution, and recognize that no place is entirely safe. Any parrilla that is highly recommended by a book or acquaintance is a great place to eat. I don’t know what the must-see things are for tourists. There is no minimum amount of time to see the city. In one day, you could see some things; in one week you could see more.

  2. God, I miss BsAs. We used to live there as temporary expats, too (6 months) and it was basically the same as you describe here. We both got quite fat from all the steak and pasta. Don’t forget to celebrate Noqui day (the 29th of each month) with a little money under your plate for luck. Another cool thing to do is Feria de Mataderos. Out of the way, but really fun.

    • I’ll have to catch the next Noqui day–I just ate. I’ll be sure to check out the next Feria de Mataderos. It looks fun.

    • I watched that episode in full before coming, but I didn’t pass it along to my companions because I didn’t want to unnecessarily scare them. I haven’t gotten a fake peso yet. If your exchange of dollars happens somewhere the exchanges a lot of dollars, your odds of getting a fake there are near zero because screwing one person is not worth the reputational hit.

      The main time to watch out for fakes is definitely with taxi drivers, as in the same where he tells you your bill is fake. Luckily I haven’t had a driver try to pull that. I wouldn’t stand for it if he did. I would proactively get police involved because they know that scam.

      The other thing to consider is that the biggest bill here is 100 pesos, which is worth very little in the grand scheme, so even if I get scammed a few times for 100 pesos each, I’m not going to sweat it too much.

      I was a bit worried by that episode, and counterfeits surely exist, but it’s not the big deal that Scam City makes it out to be.

  3. @Mason, eight hours is a long time to sit in an airport or airport lounge. I would go into BsAs just to get a feel for the place.

    You might even choose to take one of the hop on / hop off bus tours (you can sit downstairs if the weather is too dreary that day), which will give you a good overview of the city.

    • My main stumbling block is the $160 entry fee. Plus, if my incoming flight is late, and security and emigration lines are long on the way out, and traffic is bad to and from the airport, I might not have enough time to do much. Am I making too much of these issues?

      • Immigration is hit and miss. I got through in 15 minutes. A few weeks later, my girlfriend took an hour. It depends on how many flights are landing. I don’t know how long security and emigration take. Traffic shouldn’t be too bad–half an hour each way. Your cabby will take surface streets if the city is clogged. I would head to Puerto Madero and have a steak if I had about 4 hours.

    • Details not available at press time 😉

      I haven’t looked into a tango show yet, though I’m sure I will.

  4. MV, if you were to choose just one or maybe 2 things that you did not like in BA / Argentina, what would it be??? Can we match it with the same stuff in Ecuador 🙂

    • Customer service and business culture!

      Employees do not care to help you or do a good job here. It’s aggravating how often I get to the front of the line, and the employee takes a short break to talk to a coworker. This is not an Argentina-specific problem though. I think the US is the best in the world in this area, Latin America is awful, and Europe is pretty bad.

      I also don’t like how much smoking there is.

      • I did not even think of it in a first place! But it’s completely true and so unbearable when with a family of 10 or so in any Ecuadorian restaurant you’re ‘forced’ to sit and wait for 3o minutes for the first plate to be served and than another half-an-hour for the very last dish.
        Other than that, the smell of gasoline (still leaded???) was everywhere! Last but probably not least, worst of all was an issue with splashing the toilet and ‘Scott’ paper 🙂 to be thrown into the garbage bin once used!

  5. Scott:
    I’m from Buenos Aires and one thing you don’t want to miss is a soccer game. Get some tickets to go see Boca Juniors at “La Bombonera” and you’ll have a blast. Go with a friend or 2 if you can…. and of course don’t wear anything facy, expensive, etc….
    Another thing to do in Palermo is the “hipódromo” (horse race) or a polo match. Also go check out the Alvear Palace Hotel brunch on Sunday and/or tea service any day of the week.
    Have fun in BA!!!!

    Angel

    • I just went to Argentina/Venezuela at River’s stadium. That was a blast. I want to go to a SuperClasico and root for the home team, but we’ve decided River is our team! My roommate has done both polo and the Alvear Palace. I need to try them.

  6. Excellent post!

    FYI, if you want to save that $0.01 per minute, get a free VPN service and have it geo-locate (I think that’s the correct term) you somewhere in the states. Basically tricks GMail into thinking you’re in the US, so calls are free. I use it when traveling abroad all the time and it works like a charm. Also good for thwarting low bit computer criminals at public hotspots.

    • I have had bad luck with free VPNs, so I don’t want to bother with them anymore to save the 0.01. I’ve lost my frugal ways!

  7. You say your apartment is $1200 per month. You must mean US$1200. I think that is over-priced for BsAs, but real estate is all about location!

      • Maybe rent is a steal if you’re from either of the coasts, like you’re from LA. But here in the Midwest $1,200 USD is a little pricey. Thanks for the info; sounds like I’d rather couchsurf or do a homestay.

        • Don’t forget it’s furnished and not a yearly contract. My mom in Tampa also thinks I’m getting ripped off. But a fair comparison is to the best part of major US cities.

  8. So how exactly does “someone you know” exchange dollars at the best rate on the blue market? Presumably very few people are taking their dollars to the banks to exchange at the official rate. What is the best form of $US to bring in my <10,000 stash? Crisp 20s, 50s, and 100s were well accepted for me in Peru recently, but the difference between official and street rates was minuscule compared to Argentina and the transactions are legal as far as I know.

  9. Hi Scott, great post, great blog!

    Just curious, since I plan to spend quite a bit of time in BA in the future, which plan do you use to get your 3G at 1 peso/day? I was with Movitel there last time and while the internet worked, the pricing was all-over the map….

    Thank you very much for your help!
    D

    • I think they are all charging 1 peso/day now. I use Claro, which advertises it pretty heavily. If you use 10 megabytes in a day (not that much), you get slowed way down unless you agree to pay another peso, which I always do. So I actually average about 2 pesos/day.

  10. one tip re: $160 reciprocity fee: you can avoid it if you do not arrive at EZE. How to do that? Cross into argentina another way. I did it in jan 2012 by flying into Montevideo, Uruguay and then catching the Buquebus ferry to BsAs. The ferry only take a few hours. What made this really worth it for me was the flight down to Montivideo was also like $500 cheaper than flying into BsAs. And if you also want to check out Uruguay’s awesome coast, than its a no-brainer.

    • Exactly. If you want to do Uru and Arg, fly into Uru and out of Arg to save $160. But if you just want to do Arg, I don’t think it’s worth the time and hassle to fly into Uru.

  11. And don’ forget the exit fee at the airport when leaving – have the correct fee or you may have to run around airport finding cash.

  12. There hasn’t been an exit fee at EZE for a while, or at least the airlines all include that in their fees. And you have to pay the reciprocity fee at any border crossing. It’s been that way for several months. You should pay it online BEFORE you enter Argentina to avoid delays. Airlines leaving from the U.S. will probably ask to see your receipt for paying the Tasa de Reciprocidad before getting on the plane. But it is good for 10 years.

  13. Thanks for the preview of BsAs. I’m in Cordoba, AR for Semana Santa and will head to BsAs on Monday. All your information is true – I got 8 per 1US in Mendoza w|o any bargaining. Mendoza is fantastic for food and wine, and should not be missed!

    BTW – I thought that I might avoid the US160 fee at the border coming from Santiago de Chile by bus, but decided not to press my luck. Smart move – the border control agent demanded receipt of payment, so I saved a lot of hassle at 2AM. There is no way to pay on the spot, so I don’t know what would have happened.

    All things said about the downsides of Latin culture, it’s a great time to visit Argentina while the whole country is on sale. The value is unbeatable!

  14. My husband and I took our then-14 month old son to BA awhile back. Had a great time, and the Portenos were all *so* gracious and welcoming. They love babies there, too, so our son was very much an icebreaker. However, we were told not to worry about prepaying the entrance fee, that we could pay it at EZE upon arrival. So that’s what we did, and it was very simple and fast. So I’m not so sure it’s really necessary to do it beforehand, though I suppose the risk of long lines or a delay would make it worthwhile to hedge your bet and do it in the US before leaving.

    p.s. For a truly *outstanding* meal – possibly the best of my life, beating out other 3* Michelin places – splurge before you come home and go do the tasting menu at Tomo I in the PanAmerico hotel. My husband and I spent about $300 US on a dinner there, but I think half of that was a verrrry fine Argentine wine. So it’s possible about half of that for the tasting menu, or even less if you don’t do the tasting. But really, the tasting is incredible!

  15. How is the counterfeit money situation? I saw an episode of “Scam City” on the Travel&Escape channel that dealt with this issue.

  16. Doh! Ignore that question, I see you answered it above.

    Let me ask this: Since the cost of imported goods is so expensive, is there anything you would recommend bringing in , to resell or to gift? Maybe not Ragu Sauce ! unless it’s very popular.

    • Maybe ask the person you want to give the gift to. Electronics here are much more than in the US. (You do have to pay a 150% duty if you bring in things worth more than $300, but they don’t seem to hassle tourists unless you are bringing in a ton of new, boxed stuff.)

  17. My partner and I are heading to Buenos Aires for 5 days, starting on June 12. As per your advice, we rented an apartment in Palermo Soho. We’re based in Santiago, and we’re looking forward to the quick trip. I was wondering if you any updates to your guide? Any additional tips?

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