For the last stop on my 15-month journey (HUGE sad face), I wanted to stay still. Instead of seeing a city for a week or two before moving on, I would plop myself in Buenos Aires for 2 ½ glorious months. There would be no vineyard trips to Mendoza; no horse scampering across the wilds of Patagonia. Nope, I was going to rent an apartment, take Spanish classes and allow the city to romance me slowly.
Buenos Aires is a port city, thus locals are called porteños. It was my goal to be as porteño-y as possible during my stay. I decided I would become an empanada expert and figure out which bottle of $2 Malbec I preferred (as it turns out I’m really a $4 Malbec girl). There were also neighborhoods to explore and steaks to consume. Since I’d been to Argentina once before, a lot of the touristy things were already checked off the list: Recoleta Cemetery, the Obelisco, Casa Rosada, Teatro Colon, Plaza de Mayo, San Telmo Market, Puerto Madero and others. Some I would revisit, but my focus would be on finding favorite cafes and letting the locals lead. I had a busy 10 weeks of anthropological work ahead of me.
Since I wasn’t in a hotel or guesthouse, it was going to take a little more effort to meet people. On day three I did something I hate almost as much as eating mushrooms or running a 5k; I went to an expat event by myself.
I’m not a fan of walking into a bar without a wingman, surrounded by people huddled in groups chatting and laughing. Do I stick my hand into the circle and say, “Hello, I’m Shelley”? Ugh, horrid. I wasn’t sure of the protocol and I was already at a disadvantage because I hadn’t yet learned that showing up 30 minutes late for an event is about an hour too early.
I spotted a small group of women and weaseled my way in, but it wasn’t very hospitable, so after an awkward 20 minutes I broke off to find a new tribe. As I stood to the side sipping my $2 glass of Rose, I struck up a conversation with another person who then introduced me to his brother-in-law, and before I knew it, I was part of a larger circle. By the end of the night I had exchanged contact information with a few people and made plans to go shoe shopping the next day with Soledad, a local Argentinian. These people, along with a few others I would meet, became my friends. They were the people I laughed with, ate with, danced with and sometimes practiced my caveman Spanish with. Without them my time in BA wouldn’t have been nearly as incredible as it was.
Mucho gusto, Español
It’s not easy to become intimate with a city, especially one as large as Buenos Aires. There are so many cultural nuances and idiosyncrasies that it takes patience, daily mistakes and a little help from locals (if you’re lucky). One of my cultural teachers was my actual teacher. I found Adriana on the ba-expats website. Her price for private Spanish lessons was cheaper and more personal than any of the language schools, which suited me just fine. And as it turned out, there was another American seeking Spanish skills so Jenna and I both met Adriana at a Starbucks in the Patio Bullrich shopping mall twice a week for two hours at a time. It was nice learning with a fellow student so we could encourage each other and act as a buffer; Adriana was not the gentle, pat-you-on-the-back kind of teacher. She knew our time was limited so she wanted to pack in as much as possible. Niceties went out the window and she grilled us if we didn’t remember vocab- or if we used a word from Spain instead of Argentina. Yes, of the 200-ish words I knew going in, I’d say at least 25 of them were rendered useless. Strawberry is not fresa, it’s frutilla. Avocado isn’t aguacate, it’s palta. And store isn’t tienda, it’s negocio. Add to that a totally different verb conjugation (they use vos instead of tu) and their extra special pronunciation (pollo isn’t pronounced poy-yo, it’s po-sho), and I had one Español mess on my hands.
While an “attaboy” every now and then would’ve been nice while navigating the Argentine Spanish minefield, I did learn a lot and much appreciated learning which mistakes were acceptable vs. which were, in Adriana’s words, “horrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeaaablay!” Like using se gusta instead of the proper le gusta to talk about what someone likes. It’s an easy mistake to make based on the reflexive verb structure and one that was beat into us. “You will remember me every time you repeat the gustar verb forms: me, te, le, nos, les, les.” She was right. I still can’t get that lady’s voice out of my cabeza.
Money Matters and the Blue Dollar
The first order of business for anyone travelling to Argentina is exchanging money. With another economic nosedive, the exchange rate for dollar or euro holders is very favorable- on the grey market. During the 10 weeks I was there, the official bank rate hovered around 8.5 pesos to $1 USD while the “blue dollar” rate, which trades on the unofficial grey market, ranged from 12.6 to 15.8. To put that into perspective, a 30 peso cup of coffee would cost anywhere from $1.89 to $2.30 at the blue dollar rate (or $3.52 at the official rate!). While not exactly stable, at its height the blue dollar was nearly double. Using an ATM to pull out money at the bank rate is simply foolish, so you need to come armed with cold, hard cash. And as I learned a little too late, the exchange rate for $100 bills is better than $50s or $20s. While the grey market is technically illegal, it’s the worst kept secret in Argentina. Even national newspapers publish the daily blue dollar rate. I watched it rise and fall on Twitter (@DolarBlue), deciding when to cash in my greenbacks. With the major rate fluctuations, it felt like playing the stock market just to buy groceries.
So where do you change money if not at a bank or official currency exchange? At cuevas (caves). Cuevas are unmarked exchange offices around town. They aren’t advertised and you’d be hard-pressed to find an address online. Asking hotels, locals and other travelers is the best way to find one. Rates can also vary quite a bit, so finding a good one can involve some trial and error. Since I was renting an apartment and my host didn’t know of a local cueva, I had to do what many other travelers do- walk down the touristy Avenida Florida pedestrian street. Touts are everywhere bellowing cambio, cambio! (change, change).
I found a female tout and she led me to a back shop where two men were sitting. One guy had a button-down shirt wide open with multiple gold chains hanging from his neck, making me feel part of some bad afterschool special. I was nervous and my piss-poor Spanish skills didn’t help. I exchanged $500 USD and counted every single 100 peso note I received in exchange (70 of them). Then after I counted them, I went back through, checking for the silver stripe running across each bill. Counterfeit bills are not uncommon, but thankfully I never got any. Or if I did, I didn’t know it and neither did the person I paid. I later learned of other cuevas in the Palermo neighborhood near my apartment sans gold-chain-wearing men. Who would’ve thought the most industrialized country during my travels would involve the shadiest money exchange?
Becoming one with the bus
I truly love trains and would marry one if I could. They are easy to navigate and pay for, without much deviation in process from country to country. For the directionally challenged like me, you pretty much need to be asleep to screw up. Buses, on the other hand, deliberately try to mess with you. I avoid them at all cost because I always get off on the wrong stop and find myself lost. In Buenos Aires they DO have a subway, but it doesn’t hit all the nooks and crannies the way buses do. At first that didn’t matter; if the subway didn’t go there, neither did I. Then Spanish lessons happened and there wasn’t a subway station near where I needed to be. It was time to take the plunge.
Two things saved my bus-averse brain: the Maps with Me app and the Interactive Bus website/app. Armed with these two pieces of technology, I greatly increased my odds of getting from point A to point B successfully. Maps with Me is my favorite travel app, and once I discovered it, Google Maps became secondary. You download an entire country’s map so it only uses GPS to track where you are (i.e. you don’t need to use internet data like you do with other map apps). This came in handy the few times I didn’t have a SIM card during my travels, but also when trying to preserve internet data usage. While on the bus I’d monitor my location and be able to get off at the actual correct stop. Imagine that. To determine my route, I’d enlist the BA interactive bus map. While entirely in Spanish, it doesn’t take long to figure it out. Just enter your starting and ending location, then like magic different bus routes appear with directions for getting on and off. Genius. Foolproof. No excuses for getting lost- except when it would have a truncated route (ahhhh!!), or when getting on the wrong numbered bus. Yes, of course it happened. While I don’t quite want to marry the bus, I was very content with our courtship in BA.
My Porteño-y Learnings
Below are just a few of the random things I learned during my stay. Some I caught onto right away while others took a little longer. I know I just scratched the surface and may need to return for more research. The bus patterns still baffle me.
1. You need to watch your step. People love their dogs and poop is everywhere. I found it strange that there was more of it on the sidewalks of Buenos Aires than in India or Bali where stray dogs are a big problem. I guess it’s true that you shouldn’t (ahem) where you sleep.
2. Porteños stay out LATE! A local friend told me blue hairs eat at 8pm (ok, maybe he said “elderly”), families at 9pm and everyone else at 10pm or later. Dance clubs don’t open until 1am, and if you get there before 2am you get the early bird rate. Going out on a Saturday night and coming home when the sun is up is standard practice. But not for me.
3. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. I don’t care if you’re in a crosswalk and the light is green; those cars turning right are not going to wait for you to get out of the way.
4. There are many one-way streets in Buenos Aires and you can’t turn left off some of the major thoroughfares. So when your cab driver starts making lots of turns down small streets, don’t worry, he’s not taking you on a joy ride. He just needs to get on the other side of that big ol’ street.
5. Petty thievery is common. You never hang your purse on a chair in a restaurant, and you really need to hold it close to your body when walking. While I was told never to take my phone out on the street, sometimes I needed to look at a map to get my bearings. In that case I’d stop, step to the side and clutch it with a death grip. When finished I’d return it to my purse and carry on. I’d never walk aimlessly while gazing at my phone.
6. English is not widely spoken. I would actually be caught off guard if someone in a restaurant greeted me with “hello” and asked if I wanted an English menu. English menus do exist in some of the more touristy restaurants, but not all. It helps to know some Spanish or consult your mobile dictionary, which I did a lot at the beginning. I was, however, surprised at the GREAT English ability among the local friends I met.
7. Those little croissants on offer at any café in town are not called croissants. They’re medialunas (half moons) and I made that mistake early on. When the waitress looked at me crosswise for pointing at the pastry and asking for a “croissant,” I knew I’d done something wrong. Lesson quickly learned.
8. While the Italian influence is unmistakable, the quality of their coffee isn’t great. If you purchase a bag of coffee in a supermarket, it will likely contain sugar. When ordering a cappuccino at a café, you won’t get a shot of espresso with a dollop of foam. You’ll get a clear glass of half espresso and half milk with a little foam on top and a sprinkling of cinnamon. And sometimes even chocolate. It’s pretty, but it isn’t a cappuccino.
9. Mate is the official beverage of Argentina and they sure do love it. Walk by a park on a weekend and you’ll see people sitting around passing the mate gourd. It’s a tea made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant. It contains a fair bit of caffeine, which is probably how porteños are able to stay out so late! It is traditionally consumed out of a dried gourd with a silver straw or bombilla (pronounced bom-BEE-sha in Argentina). The bombilla has a flattened end with small holes that act as a filter. Hot water is poured on top of the mate and then sipped. After drinking, the gourd is refilled with water and passed to the next person. Yes, you share the bombilla so it’s a drink to be consumed among friends and family. Mate is almost never found in restaurants, probably because of the shared straw situation.
10. Argentines don’t eat eggs for breakfast and they think doing so is strange so you won’t find them on a menu in a local café. Usually it’s toast or medialunas with coffee or mate.
11. Ham and cheese is like Brad and Angelina- always together and found everywhere. Go to a café and you’re guaranteed to find a ham and cheese sandwich on the menu. Sometimes multiple varieties- baked ham, “raw” cured ham (i.e. prosciutto), toasted, untoasted. In almost all empanada shops, there’s a ham and cheese option.
12. Merienda is the extra meal in Argentina. A local once asked me the translation in English and I said it would be “tea” in the UK, but in the US there isn’t one because we don’t have it (sorry Taco Bell, I know you were really trying to push “fourth meal”). Since their tradition is to eat dinner late, a snack between 4-6pm is common. Sometimes it will be a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, but often it’s just a repeat of breakfast: some sort of coffee drink and toast or pastry. Or mate.
13. Argentinians like their steak grey. I don’t get it. In a country with such beautiful and revered meat, why would you cook it to death? In a restaurant you can ask for it medium or rare, but if you say nothing, the default is usually well done. Blasphemy.
14. Ice cream is a religion. Helado shops are aplenty and, unsurprisingly, its gelato roots make for some creamy deliciousness. They also love their dulce de leche (caramel), so you’ll find several varieties of dulce de leche ice cream on the menu. Some with cream or chocolate chips or booze or whatever else they can throw in it. Oh, and you always get the option of two flavors in one cup. Yum diddley-yum.
15. Pizza/empanada shops are ubiquitous. It’s the Argentine answer to fast food (although you’ll find McDonald’s and Burger King too). Roll up to an empanada shop and you can fill your belly for about $3.
16. Beware sushi rolls in Buenos Aires; they commonly contain cream cheese. Yes, CREAM CHEESE in a salmon or tuna roll! Just run away.
17. Wine is insanely cheap. Even restaurants don’t mark it up much. Once I was having dinner with a friend and the server suggested a particular bottle of Malbec. It was more than the other bottles on the menu and we were hesitant to order it with so many cheaper options available. After going back and forth we finally decided to spurge. Then I did the calculation in USD to see what we were hemming and hawing over. It was $7.
Hmmm, shocking that most of my revelations involve food and drink. And this is just the beginning. Next up is my actual eating guide to Buenos Aires. Get ready to loosen your belt.