January 20 2015

Visiting Buenos Aires: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Posts from this trip:

It took me forever to start writing this wrap-up post about my trip to Buenos Aires because I didn’t know where to start (or end).

After a two-month stay, there’s a lot to say. But I’m certain nobody wants to read that much material. So I will try to stick to the highlights, knowing much will necessarily be omitted.

Recoleta
Recoleta, the neighborhood I stayed in

 

The good

THE STEAK

I am not a foodie at all. I’ll pretty much eat anything non-poisonous (and have probably consumed a few potentially-poisonous things too). So I rarely even remember the food of a place, let alone write about it after leaving.

Since I’m not a big beef eater, I made the mistake of not even trying the steak until several weeks into my trip. Once I did, I was hooked and ate steak almost every day the rest of the trip. Probably exceeded my remaining lifetime beef quota, but oh well.

South America in general seems to have good steak – to this day I still think the absolute best steak I’ve ever eaten is from a decade ago at a parilla in a small town in Chile almost 500 miles south of Santiago. But something about Argentina’s beef justifies its reputation of having the thickest, juiciest steaks anywhere.

An honorable mention in the food category is the pastries. There were confiterias (pastry shops) seemingly on every street and it was impossible to resist popping in for a pastry when walking by. They’re so inexpensive too – about 5 pesos (50 cents, more or less). I probably gave myself diabetes eating so much sugar every day.

THE PEOPLE

There are good people everywhere and there are bad people everywhere. While I did meet a few snobs, on the whole porteños (Buenos Aires residents) were some of the most polite people ever encountered in my travels.

This is how they wait at a bus stop:

Bus stop

Neatly lined up in order of arrival. No barging into another’s personal space. No frantic every-man-for-himself dash to grab a seat first.

Even street protesters are polite. One day, while walking home minding my own business, I encountered a small demonstration.

Now, I am very risk-averse when it comes to safety. If I’m walking around in a foreign country (or any country, at that) and there is a street protest, I get the bloody hell out of the way ASAP.

But this one didn’t look threatening so…I stood around and watched.

And saw well-mannered protestors who looked like they might as well have been marching in a holiday parade…

Protest

…and calm-looking riot-geared police who, as far as I could tell, never had to lift a finger to control the crowd:

Riot police

Even vendors, who I normally assume (rightly or wrongly) are constantly out to rip off tourists, were lovely to deal with. I never had to haggle – their prices were more than fair to begin with – and never felt taken advantage of. In fact a few times I think I (unintentionally) ripped them off and they were too polite to say anything.

THE HISTORY

Among my favorite sites were Recoleta Cemetery and La Casa Rosada. I wrote separate posts on each so I won’t bore you writing about them again here, but another favorite was El Ateneo, a gorgeous bookstore.

Ateneo 1
El Ateneo Bookstore

Physical books are a dying medium, but I was still tempted to sit down and just read something there.

The store is housed in a former 1,000-seat theater. Much of the ornate theater architecture remains intact – the balcony boxes are still there, and the stage is now the bookstore café.

I took probably a hundred pictures in the bookstore alone.

Ateneo 2

THE TANGO

It is far more enthralling in person than anything you will ever see on TV. Trust me on this, and if you visit Buenos Aires make it a point to watch the tango performed live. Options range from expensive dinner shows to milongas to street performances at the San Telmo Fair.

Tango
Tango dancers at San Telmo’s street fair

THE AFFORDABILITY

Finance-minded readers know the US dollar is currently very strong. For those with dollar-denominated assets, that’s a great travel benefit with regard to lots of destinations.

For those traveling to Argentina, an additional “quirk” makes things even more favorable.

Argentina’s economy is not stellar. Indeed, a few months ago the government committed a much-publicized debt default.

Additionally, the government heavily restricts citizens’ ability to exchange currency (to discourage capital from leaving the country).

The government also sets “official” exchange rates for the Argentine peso (to artificially prop up its value).

Nevertheless, high inflation caused the peso to devalue rapidly. As a result, Argentines covet US dollars and euro (perceiving both to be more stable for storing wealth) and are willing to pay well above the official exchange rate for them.

This appetite for dollars and euro gave rise to a black-market exchange rate. Argentines call it the “blue rate.”

At this writing, the official exchange rate is about 8.6 pesos to one USD. The blue rate is about 13.5 to 1. (At times the gap has been even wider.)

In an already-affordable country, things get even more affordable when you can basically buy the local currency at a significant discount. But that requires knowing how to get the blue rate (more on that next).

 

The bad

THE MONEY ISSUE

To take advantage of the blue rate, you must carry a lot of USD or euro into Argentina. Bringing cash is key because credit, debit, and ATM transactions only process at the official rate.

Traveling with a lot of cash is not only inconvenient but potentially unsafe.

Then there’s the matter of converting that money to Argentine pesos once you arrive.

Many people use underground exchange businesses that give the blue rate. Although very widely used, they’re technically illegal. Hence, there is (1) some inherent sketchiness, (2) the moderate risk of getting counterfeit bills, (3) the exceedingly-small risk the business gets raided (in, say, a government crackdown) while you’re there, and (4) the opaque process of finding a reliable exchange business in the first place because, since they are illegal, they don’t advertise (hint: troll the TripAdvisor forums).

Alternatively, other travelers use a service like Xoom to obtain pesos at a favorable rate. With Xoom you can electronically send US dollars (from your bank account or credit card) to a recipient (who can be yourself). The recipient receives the funds in Argentine pesos.

Although Xoom’s exchange rate (11.8 pesos to a dollar at the time I write this) is inferior to the blue rate, it is significantly superior to the official rate.

I opted to use Xoom because (1) it’s not illegal, and (2) I didn’t want to carry two full months’ worth of cash on me while traveling; I preferred the option to electronically transfer smaller amounts to myself over time as needed. But Xoom turned out to have its own complications, and in the end I did not feel entirely safe with this method either.

To retrieve your pesos, you have to visit a Xoom pickup location in Argentina. Unlike the clandestine exchange businesses, Xoom’s locations are public information – their addresses easily found on the company’s website. So when you visit one, people assume you’ll walk out with a lot of cash (even if you’re actually carrying only a little cash – or no cash at all, for that matter).

Which makes you a sitting duck for any pickpockets and muggers who might stake out the place.

To be fair, I never got mugged or pickpocketed leaving a Xoom location. But I always felt uneasy about it. (Tip: location-wise, the office on Libertad is one of the least sketchy in Buenos Aires proper.)

Ultimately, it’s probably unfair to characterize the currency issue as a negative per se. It is just the downside to obtaining a very favorable exchange rate. One can simply choose to forgo the better rate and use credit cards and ATM withdrawals instead.

Like most things in life, it comes down to a subjective risk-reward analysis.

 

The ugly

And finally, the ugly. That would be me.

My trip home entailed a 28-hour travel day with three flight segments – all in coach, with the longest segment lasting 10 hours. In between, both layovers were not only long but also in airports where I did not have lounge access.

Since I cannot sleep in coach, I felt quite wretched by the end.

Don’t cry for me. I know I’m not entitled to sympathy for being able to travel the world, let alone do it for almost free. (I used miles for the flights and only paid $87 out of pocket for taxes).

But, to be sure, it was ugly.

So after this trip I resolved to step up my miles-earning game because I hope to never, ever have to do another travel day like that in coach again.

Life is too short, I am too old, and miles are too easy to earn!

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Posted January 20, 2015 by Admin in category "Trip Reports

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