Buenos Aires as seen from SF

We went to Argentina! Rebecca was in Guatemala for reasons in late October and continuing our tradition of traveling after other travel, we skipped down to Buenos Aires for two weeks in early November.

There are so many fascinating cultural details from far away places that I think about when I’m traveling and it seems that I always forget to write about them when I return. So I took some notes this time while I was away and this is my attempt at turning those into a cohesive post.

In particular, South America seems like it gets a lot less attention than other places which is particularly strange considering how European Buenos Aires feels. It’s familiar, but different.

While we were there we frequented the hip neighborhoods of Palermo Viejo/Soho which are more comparable to the Mission or Nopa area. There are plenty of fancy places in more upscale neighborhoods but we try to stick with the similar vibe we have at home, so keep this in mind when reading prices as there are definitely places to go for both cheaper and more expensive fare.

Foursquare was sometimes useful but often inaccurate in details. I’ve added tips, improved listings and included some of the best places we went to in this post.

transportation

Aeromexico was the cheapest option at the time of booking. Roughly a 4 hour flight down to Mexico City on a plainly equipped 737, then a couple-hour layover and another 9 hours to Buenos Aires on a much more comfortable 777. The flights down were smooth and uneventful, though we did have to swap planes on the way back through MEX.

Laying over in Mexico City, however, was a complete mess. I’ve been able to get through international layovers without much problem previously (as long as the immigration lines aren’t too long) but Mexico City forces you to retrieve your checked luggage and recheck it to your destination (presumably some sort of drug enforcement security measure). This took literally two hours in either direction. Perhaps this is planned into the layover times or I just happened to get lucky but it seems like an easy way to miss your connecting flight is to layover in MEX.

We planned ahead for a cab from the airport to take us into Buenos Aires though it was apparent when we arrived that it wasn’t necessary, lots of cabs waiting just outside to take you into town. One benefit of booking beforehand is that we were able to find a driver who would take dollars since we didn’t exchange money at the airport (more on this in a bit). It was a flat $30 into the Palermo neighborhood which isn’t exactly close to the highway. The ride back was a$300 (Argentine pesos, for the purpose of distinguishing) which we heard was pretty standard when asking around.

getting around

Do not expect to drive in the city unless you are very familiar with the cultural rules of the road. Stop signs, when installed, are rarely adhered to. Instead, most small intersections are governed by what seems like a giant game of chicken. The most ballsy driver is the one who crosses the intersection and the opposite direction waits until traffic in the other direction has slowed, or until they’ve slowly creeped into the middle of the street and won their game of chicken. Cars generally pay attention to red lights and busy intersections have pedestrian crossing signals as well.

On larger streets, lane markings are only useful as a theoretical indication for how many cars may fit horizontally on a street. Cars, cabs and busses go to where there’s an empty spot, regardless of the position of lanes.

Luckily, you don’t need to drive. Cabs are plentiful and cheap, which really highlights the flaws of the San Francisco cab system that allowed Uber and Lyft to pop up. A trip across town with some traffic in traffic is usually no more than a$100, plenty of closer locations are under a$50. Make sure your driver puts the meter on.

Pedestrians are an afterthought. Cars won’t slow down to let you cross if you wait at the corner. You have to just walk and make it across before they reach you, or you’ll be warned that you’re in the way with a honk.

Bikes are surprisingly well supported in such a car-centric city (widest avenue in the world and all) with a network of separated bike lanes that usually run on smaller roads parallel to arterials. There’s also a network of free yellow city bikes that you can take around the city, though I didn’t experience this myself. Bikes, obviously, yield to cars at intersections.

the peso and the dollar

Now, the promised digression about the Argentine peso: in the 90s it was pegged to the dollar but that fell out of favor during the 2001 crash and the subsequent uncoupling of the peso led to inflation and general instability. The government proceeded to fight against inflation over the course of the next few years, finally settling on restricting the flow of dollars into the country in 2011.

Restricting the supply didn’t stem the demand for the relatively stable dollar and the alternative “blue” rate sprung up, giving a gray market method for Argentines to get dollars which they need for major purchases like apartments. When the government again devalued the peso in early 2014 the blue rate really spiked and it’s been somewhere between 13.5 and 15.5 for the last few months that I’ve been paying attention.

The official rate has hovered around 8.5 so the blue rate during some periods has almost given you twice as many pesos per dollar. We were relatively lucky, arriving when the rate was close to 15 and exchanging enough for our first week. Subsequent exchanges for the second week were at roughly 14 and 13 and the rate is about 13.5 today.

There are plenty of other sites telling you how to find places to change dollars into pesos at the blue rate, I won’t go into detail here.

a short diversion on Argentine history

Buenos Aires feels like a city that hasn’t had much cohesive government direction and that plays out if you look at the history of government in Argentina. The Argentine history wikipedia page is long list of government control swaps on a roughly ten year schedule that isn’t just two parties going back and forth. Since 1900, Argentina has had conservatives, military rule, socialists and what seems like everything in between, separated by revolution, riot and coup d’état.

The government has been a relatively stable democracy since the early 80s but the economy hasn’t been so kind. The most glaring proof of this is the incredible architecture of the public buildings that are 50+ years old but obviously in a state of deterioration.

We heard from others about certain government restrictions that make no sense for an economy struggling to grow - no commercial import or export of alcohol for one - so I suspect that the government must think there are more important issues to deal with.

purchasing

If you’re traveling here, major costs will most likely be in dollars, apartment rentals included. In that sense, Buenos Aires isn’t unusually cheap. However, for incidental costs paid in pesos, the exchange rate makes it somewhere between a very and an absurdly cheap place to live if you have dollars.

Consider this: cocktails in San Francisco are never less than $10 and usually somewhere between $14 and $20. In Buenos Aires, you are unlikely to see a cocktail above a$100 (or as we frequently estimated, $7 at the blue rate).

We ate out for most meals - unusual for us, but vacation! - and generally spent a$50-75 for a plate and maybe another a$50 for a drink. Generally under a$300 for two people per meal which we felt was quite cheap.

In fact, I find myself balking at the prices in San Francisco upon our return. It’s not uncommon to sit down for a quick meal and end up with a $50 bill here so I’m glad we’re back to cooking at home as well.

There are a lot of boutique-y clothes places in Palermo Viejo, so you can do some shopping while you’re there. I got a couple tshirts and a hoodie (a “large”) for a$550 from various places, there are some very fancy fashion places in the neighborhood around Plaza Serrano also. The plaza also hosts a weekend street fair, some of which is out on Saturday but quite a bit more stuff on Sunday.

If you need to get more dollars, ATMs in Buenos Aires will not dispense them. You have to make the short trip by boat to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay to fill up on dollars if you don’t bring enough. More on getting to Uruguay later.

renting an apartment

Just briefly, we rented a place from RentBA.com which was fantastic. The owners were very responsive to our emails with myriad questions before we arrived and our checkin was smooth despite our late arrival around 10pm.

They didn’t have a ton of reviews out there so I was giving it a 10% chance that it was an elaborate scam and we would arrive with no place to stay but obviously that wasn’t the case. They’re 100% legit and awesome.

There are plenty of places on Airbnb in Buenos Aires as well but we booked fairly late and found a place we liked more on RentBA.

food and drinks

Beer in Buenos Aires was not at all like in San Francisco. You can get Quilmes - either the standard Crystal or other labels that tasted very similar - essentially anywhere and usually in 1 liter bottles. It’s the equivalent to cheap, light beer in the US. Various other local beers (and Heineken) in similar formats and tastes for around a$50 at the supermarket and similar prices for something on tap at a bar or restaurant.

There are a couple microbreweries in Buenos Aires that are very popular but the style is very light beer regardless of actual beer style. The craft brew scene is just starting to get popular, the breweries we visited were busy on most nights.

Wine is pretty incredible, plentiful and very cheap. Malbec is the style that Argentina is known for and it shows as 80% of the wine selection is just that. But it’s quite good and usually around a$100 for a mid-range bottle. We developed a nice 5pm wine habit while we were there.

We ended up stopping into a wine shop near where we were staying and getting about 16 bottles to bring back with us. Due to the excellent packing skills of the guys at Almacen Sabor Regional, all of them made it back intact.

As expected, the food was overwhelmingly meaty. There were a few vegetarian restaurants in Palermo Viejo/Hollywood but you are mostly limited to meat in large quantities.

If you never had the opportunity to try a fancy 12-course molecular gastronomy-style meal with wine pairings, maybe the exchange rate here will convince you to give it a shot. We went to Aramburu which, while the style was fascinating, wasn’t nearly the best food we ate while in Buenos Aires.

As for more local fare, NOLA has an incredible fried chicken sandwich and their other New Orleans-inspired items are super tasty. Plus the house beer, Bröeders, is pretty good.

Dinner hours are later than you’re used to, probably starting around 8pm. Particularly during the spring and summer (northern hemisphere fall and winter) the weather is warm at night and plenty of people choose to spend it at one of many outdoor cafes.

As you can tell, food style is typical of large cities; you can get the standard worldly cuisine throughout the city. Another nearby location was a tiny french place: À Nos Amours. The food here is fantastic and the menu changes frequently, usually three dishes to choose from per night. You would pay significantly more for french food of similar quality in San Francisco.

traveling from Buenos Aires

There are a couple options for traveling from Buenos Aires to nearby (and not nearby) destinations.

The closest is a 30 minute train ride to le Tigre on the river delta. It’s a small vacation town with some nice buildings and boat tours that take you around the delta to see houses and resorts that are only accessible by boat.

We knew that it had rained pretty hard for the last day or two in Buenos Aires but we didn’t know until we arrived that there was more than a meter of flooding in the delta area. Surprisingly, the boat tours were still running and once we were out on the tour we realized the extent of the damage that had been done. A case of inadvertent disaster tourism.

The main town has a couple places to eat and drink and a theme park for kids. It seemed like there was more stuff that should have been open if not for the flooding.

Two trains go in that direction from Buenos Aires. Tickets on either are something like $2. We took the “fast” (still ~10 stops) train from the central station out to le Tigre and the slower, coastal train back. The coastal route is more scenic and there are a bunch of small towns on the line where you can get off and walk around. We picked San Isidro but Barrancas and others looked nice as well. If I was going to plan a day out there now, I would give the train back and coastal towns at least as much time as I gave le Tigre itself.

San Isidro had a little shopping plaza on one side and a quaint restaurant and downtown area on the other. There were a few artist studios open in the area which were nice to check out. It would have been great to support some of the artists there but a lot of it was fairly large and transporting it back would have been a pain.

The coastal train back doesn’t quite take you back into the center of the city so you either have to catch a connecting train or take a cab the rest of the way back. Still worth it.

Alternatively, you can head out to Uruguay via ferry and spend a day in Colonia or Montevideo. It’s a little more expensive ($50 to Colonia, $90-$120 to Montevideo depending on speed of travel) but worth it to get out of the city for a day or two.

We opted to do the ferry to Colonia, a little historic town almost directly across the river from Buenos Aires. There’s a lighthouse and antique places, plenty of places to eat and some history to learn about. It was the perfect amount of stuff to see for a day, I definitely wouldn’t go for longer.

Colonia is the easiest place to get dollars near Buenos Aires. It was fairly obvious that people would come over on the ferry for the afternoon to do just that; the line for the ATM was long and you can hear people at the ATM going through the withdrawal process over and over again.

Montevideo takes a bit longer to get to, particularly the cheaper method (ferry to Colonia then bus to Montevideo), so it’s probably a smart idea to stay over for a night or two. I hear the beaches just north of Montevideo are very nice.

And if you’re really interested in taking advantage of your location in the southern hemisphere, you can take a three hour flight to Patagonia and see some glaciers and that sort of thing. The whole “trip within a trip” thing starts getting a little expensive in my mind so we didn’t do it this time. We would probably work it into the beginning or end of a trip to Chile or Argentina next time though.

next time!

Speaking of next times… I would definitely go back and spend more time in Buenos Aires or potentially Chile. The biggest issue I have is the length and layover of flights from the west coast. Plenty of direct flights to EZE from JFK, Houston or Miami but we don’t have a single one from the west coast and the most direct layover is through MEX which I definitely won’t do again.

Thanks for treating us well, Buenos Aires! We had a great time.

Something I missed? Something you’re curious about? Feel free to find me on twitter: @nickoneill

Mon, Dec 1, 2014