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 All prices in pesos are way out of date because it has halved in value since this was written, but prices in dollars are about the same.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.
Argentine Spanish is different than varieties with which you may be more familiar. The main difference is the voseo.
Tú 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.
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.