We have been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina for nearly a month. We have had our ups and our downs here with some things being much more complicated than we ever expected. We did quite a bit of research prior to our arrival, but found that no one source really did a good job in preparing us for what to expect in Buenos Aires.
While we are far from experts, here is some advice based on our experiences:
There is no visa required, but you need to pay the reciprocity fee before arriving. Go to this site and pay. The site isn’t incredibly clear, but you will have to register (one person per household) in order to pay the fee which was $160 USD when we did it in May of 2014. Once complete, be sure to print out your verified reciprocity so that it can be scanned upon arrival at immigration. If you don’t have this, you will be turned away, but chances are they will check before you board your plane. There is additional visa information here.
Vaccinations are not required for entry from the US (other than the routine ones most have had since childhood), but there are some recommended ones that you might want to consider, such as Hep A which can be found in contaminated food. Check out the CDC website for more information.
If cash is king than the Dollar Blue Rate is god. If you have done any research then you have heard of the dollar blue rate. If not, you will learn quickly. The dollar blue rate is a gray market exchange rate that exists in Buenos Aires where individuals and small businesses buy and sell US dollars and Euros for Argentine Pesos. Why does something like exist, you may ask? Because Argentina can’t get its shit together when it comes to its economy. Over the decades the economy here has collapsed and rebounded a number of times leaving many with little to nothing. I won’t get into the details here because I’m not the right source for that information (learn more here), but the effects of these economic issues are abundantly clear. The peso is floundering and the government is doing everything it can to falsely prop it up. This has lead to this gray market of dollar-for-peso exchange. All you really need to know is that the dollar blue rate trades at a much better rate than the official exchange rate.
Getting the Blue Rate
If you want to get the dollar blue rate, there is really only one option: go to Florida St. to one of the many kioskos there with guys yelling out “Cambio!”. You simply tell them you want to exchange your dollars or euros for pesos, hand over your cash, and get pesos in return. Check the dollar blue rate before you go and know what you should get in return. If you have larger denominations (USD / Euro) such as $100s and $50s you can get a better rate; usually about .25%. Be warned, while you will get an awesome exchange rate, you could also get ripped off. It doesn’t happen all the time, but visitors have been scammed by receiving fake pesos (look below for detecting fake currency).
A Good Rate Without the Hassle
If Florida St sounds like a hassle, then you have another option if you live in the US: Xoom. Xoom is a money transfer service that is handled online. You simply register with Xoom, connect your home bank account and transfer money to yourself. Then you pick up your pesos at a partner location (usually a More Money). Xoom will handle the exchange for you electronically and you will get a solid rate which usually sits right in the middle of the dollar blue rate and the official rate. Xoom will charge you a service fee, though, so make sure to take enough money out to make it worth while. This is what we have chose to do the entire time we’ve been here. We had few dollars on us when we arrived from Ecuador so it was our best choice.
Credit cards are accepted at many places and ATMs are prevalent, but do yourself a favor and get cash. Even if you have a credit card or debit card that has no foreign transaction fees, you still pay more because you are paying the official exchange rate. There may be some cases where you just have to use an ATM or your credit card, but try to use them sparingly. Additionally, you will see some retailers will offer you a better rate if you pay cash, so that’s just another benefit to paper.
Finding a Fake
This isn’t as common as most resources would have you believe. We talked to one local who has been here for 7 years and has never received one and he has even asked for them (as if they’d admit to it). The primary place where you are most likely to get fakes is from a blue rate exchange shop. They know you are a tourist because you have USD or Euros and they will be giving you bigger bills of 50s and 100s which are the bills most commonly counterfeit. If you do find yourself on Florida St. and want to look savvy or just not get ripped off, hold one of the larger bills up and look for the watermark. On both the 50s and 100s there is a large watermark illustration. If the illustration is quite detailed, it’s the real deal. If it is simply a line drawing without gradation, it is probably fake. Check out San Telmo Loft’s post for a significantly better description on spotting a fake.
Small Bills and Change
The government, nice folks that they are, don’t circulate and print many small bills. If you go into a small shop, do your best to have some smaller bills as they might not have any in return. Personally, we haven’t had a single problem with this, but we have heard that they will refuse service at some smaller shops like produce stands.
Getting to/from Buenos Aires
Chances are you are flying into EZE which is situated outside of the city. If you have never been to BA before, it’s probably best to grab a cab to get to where you are staying. After exiting customs you will see one of the main entrances to the airport. There are a bunch of restaurants and cafes and a big circular kiosk in the middle of the floor for getting a cab. This isn’t the standard radio taxi you will see everywhere in BA. It is a cab operated by a company that just takes you from the airport to your location. I’m not sure if it is the best rate, but we only had USD at the time and it seemed the easiest option. Our ride from EZE to Palermo Soho cost about $40 USD. If you want to learn more about getting to and from the airport check out Lonely Planet.
Spanish is spoken in Argentina so Maya was pretty confident about spending 6 weeks here. That’s because she thought she was fluent in Spanish. While she does well speaking with anyone in Miami, the Cuban-speak wasn’t flying in Buenos Aires. If I caught 5% of what was being said the first two weeks, she caught 20. It was a much greater adjustment than just swapping ‘y’ sounds for ‘sh’ sounds (Maya feels like a fucking fool asking for a poh-sho empanada). There is different terminology to get used to compared to other parts of Latin America as well as differences in pronunciation. We paid attention to context and got the hang of it after a while and I have been able to adapt, but there is no changing Maya’s accent. To be fair, an American wouldn’t go to England and try to speak in an English accent.
There are lots of great options for neighborhoods to checkout and stay in while visiting BA. We are staying in between Palermo Soho and Almagro. For a solid guide to the neighborhoods here in BA check out Gringo in Buenos Aires or AirBnB’s BA neighborhood guide.
In our first weeks here we struggled to get the hang of a lot of things, but public transit wasn’t one of them. The subway and bus systems are easy to use, efficient, and cheap (I’m talking “are you fucking kidding” cheap).
The best way to get around is with a Sube card. This gives you access to both the subway system and the buses without having to worry about exact change. On top of not looking like a tourist and holding up the entire bus, you will get a cheaper rate when using your Sube. The only problem is getting a card and putting money on it. It can be quite a hassle as they aren’t sold at subway stations. Check out Wander Argentina’s guide to getting a Sube card.
It’s not the most comprehensive system, but it is efficient. It is particularly convenient when trying to get from one end of the city to the other, like from Palermo Hollywood to Retiro. It runs 7 days a week; Mon – Sat from 5am to 11pm and Sunday from 8am to 10pm. Not good for when you want to go out to da club, but otherwise a solid option.
If walking isn’t your thing and you want to see more of the city, hop on a bus, but first use Omni-Lineas’ website where you can simply click on your starting point and draw a line to your destination on a map and it will spit out bus line options. It only really works on a computer, so it’s not great when out on the go, but for those instances grab yourself a Guia-T. This handy pocket-sized guide is available at most magazine stands, especially those by subway stations, for about 20 pesos or $2 USD. Using the Guia-T is fairly simple. Check out Wander Argentina’s guide to the Guia-T.
Yellow cabs here are everywhere. Radio Taxi, although apparently a mafia-run company, is the standard. Hop in one with a lit sign that says “Libre” and tell them where you are headed. The fares are typically very cheap with ride across town usually costing less than 100 pesos. For a tip, just round up the fare. Some drivers might even do this for you because they don’t have the change.
If you are just visiting for a week or two it’s probably best to just sort something out with your mobile carrier back home. If you are spending more time here or are on a budget, then you will want to get a local SIM. This isn’t the easiest thing on the planet, but once registered and setup it’s pretty easy to manage and incredibly cheap. There are essentially 3 main carriers in Argentina: Movistar, Claro and Personal. We went with Movistar. The gist is that you have to go to one of the many providers and buy a SIM which comes with no money loaded onto it. Don’t worry if you need a micro SIM since the micro version pops right out of the card. Once you have the SIM, you have to register the card via your phone, then put money on the card so you can use it. It doesn’t sound too complicated, but it can be a bit of a hassle. For detailed info check out Nick Berry’s post.
Another option that is much easier to setup, but affords less freedom is turning off all cellular service and just using WiFi. Most restaurants, cafe’s, and bookstores have free WiFi access and getting the password is usually as easy as looking for it posted around the shop, asking someone there, or for the less socially inclined, using FourSquare (the wifi password is almost always the top tip). WiFi will give you access to apps like Skype or the more commonly used WhatsApp allowing you to message or call friends over WiFi (a feature not yet available on iOS).
Additionally, you can get offline versions of maps to help you navigate using City Maps2Go.
Food and Drink
Where to begin…
Pick Up the Fork
If it’s food or drink you are after, look no further (you pretty much CAN’T look any further). This is the quintessential food resource for all of BA. Really, don’t go to a single place without checking this blog first. Unfortunately, if you try to wing it, you could have one of the worst food experiences you’ve had in a long while.
We’ll be following up with some posts specific to finding the good stuff here in BA so look for those soon.
Initially we found it very hard to find the good stuff. We had some bad luck with a carniceria (butcher) and some verdurarias (produce stands), but with a little work and some solid recommendations we found our way. Ask around for the best spots and keep in mind that looks can be deceiving. It may look great, but is spoiled or tastes awful.
Only the Staples
Don’t expect the simple pleasures you’d get back home. The options for different goods here are pretty limited as they just simply don’t import that many goods due to cost and inflation (Maya looks for peanut butter everywhere we go and it’s pitiful to watch). Frozen food items and pre-made ingredients are limited and usually of poor quality so expect to start from scratch if you are planning a meal. Its a much better way to cook anyway.
Some things you won’t easily find in local shops here are…
Canned beans (who doesn’t have canned beans?!)
Reese’s Peanut Butter cups (but Oreo’s are everywhere)
Absorbant napkins (you can’t wipe your face with wax paper, Argentina!)
A public pool spews from the taps here. The government loads the public water supply with chlorine making it a not so great choice. They say it is safe for public consumption, if you aren’t pregnant, elderly, or a small child. I’ve got a pretty solid immune system, but I’m not messing with that shit. Just buy bottled water anywhere; it’s cheap and at the very least tastes good (but it won’t have fluoride so don’t forget your toothpaste and floss).
At restaurants you won’t get served still water like you might be used to in the US. It is much more like Italy where you will need to order a bottle. Ask for “Agua sin gas” if you want still water.
Most restaurants will include a surcharge just for sitting down (usually a reasonable fee) and many include a 10% tip. It is not necessary to leave a tip in these cases, but if you like the service feel free to throw down another 10%. We’ve done this pretty regularly, but we are Americans and we can’t help but tip.
Have you been to a major city before? Then you know what to expect. Don’t be stupid.