I love wandering around big cities, and one city I’ve always wanted to visit for urban exploration was Buenos Aires. I ended up spending 11 days in BA, and I could have easily spent more time given the chance. I can see how many travellers I’ve met have ended up staying for way longer than they planned.
I wasn’t expecting to travel to South America this year, but when I was planning my annual trip to London I was contacted by Air France/KLM to write about one of their South American destinations. They asked me to pick a city and I said Buenos Aires.
So what has London got to do with this trip? Air France/KLM are promoting cities in their South American network departing from UK airports. As I was going to be in London I was offered to write about a city in the AF/KLM South American network, by departing from London Heathrow and connecting through Amsterdam or Paris. For this trip I was flown as a guest with KLM from London to Buenos Aires, via Amsterdam.
As per usual with my Notes series, these are random thoughts and observations of what I found on my wanders, and not a travel guide of the top things to do in Buenos Aires.
The Paris of South America
“The Paris of X” is certainly an overused phrase but in the case of Buenos Aires, “the Paris of South America” is a well deserved title.
The Teatro Colon (Colón Theatre) is the opera house of Buenos Aires and wouldn’t be out of place in Paris. I would say that it would compete with any opera house in Europe in terms of grandiosity.
Downtown area is filled with grand commercial and government buildings.
The boulevards and avenues are equally grand.
[Avenida Presidente Roque Saenz Pena]
The great buildings aren’t limited to the downtown area either. You can walk for miles and be surrounded by these classic buildings. I rarely got the metro as I wanted to see as much of the streetscape as my feet could handle.
Then there are the many fixer-upper’s with their faded window shutters and exposed brick that are still more beautiful than most new buildings.
It’s not just the buildings that make the streetscape so appealing but also the leafy streets, especially in Palermo and Recoleta.
[Spring hasn’t quite sprung here, but you get the idea.]
The Blue Dollar
Before I go any further I should mention the situation with the currency, because Argentina is once again a cheap travel destination – if you convert your currency correctly. Without delving into an essay, the Argentinian economy is a mess and the government has placed restrictions on currency leaving the country. This has led to a situation where there are two rates for the Peso against the US Dollar; the official rate, and the blue dollar rate.
When I was there (October 2014) the official rate was 8.4 ARS to 1 USD. The blue dollar rate was 14.5 ARS to 1 USD. The blue dollar is a euphemism for the black market rate (sounds much nicer, doesn’t it). A fellow travel friend was in Buenos Aires in 2013 when the rate was 5.6 vs 10 peso to the dollar. The peso is devaluating so fast that Argentinians are buying US Dollars at a premium to protect their savings.
The blue dollar is technically illegal, yet it is published in the newspapers and on the TV news. I saw the rate on this electronic billboard.
With a rate of 8.4 to 14.5, you are almost doubling your money if you find a place to convert your dollars. If you are coming to Argentina bring plenty of US dollars with you, preferably crispy $100 dollar bills. I also heard of people making day trips to Uruguay where there are ATM’s that dispense US Dollars. Even with the time and expense of a day trip you would be saving considerable pesos by doing this.
When you arrive at the airport you will only have the option of taking money out of the ATM’s or using an official currency exchange. In this case only get what you need to leave the airport for the bus/taxi, and get the rest when you are in town. You can ask at your hotel/hostel where to find someone to change money at the blue dollar rate. Around the city I saw signs in restaurants where they will change your money in the blue rate, but generally the blue dollar money changers don’t advertise.
One of the best known places to change your money is along Florida St – a long pedestrianised shopping mall where people are singing out all day “cambio cambio” (change change). It’s a bit dodgy changing money in public so proceed with caution there.
The San Telmo Fair
I lucked out when I first arrived as I was staying in San Telmo next to the weekend fair. On sundays Defensa Street is turned into a pedestrian-only market. On sale are antiques, locally-made arts and crafts, and the usual tourist trinkets. Having just come from a long stretch of living in Asia it was nice to wander a market that wasn’t full of knock-off brand goods and assorted plastic rubbish.
I was also astounded by the quality of busking musicians here, something that I don’t get to see in Asia.
Towards the end of the day when the market was packing up I followed along with this band of drummers and accompanying dancers.
La Recoleta Cemetery
I’m a fan of wandering around cemeteries so I was delighted to see that in Buenos Aires the Recoleta Cemetery is considered a tourist attraction.
[La Recoleta Cemetery]
Recoleta cemetery resembles a literal city of the dead, with lane ways lined with mausoleums giving it the feeling of a mini city.
[I refer to this one as the Flatiron of Recoleta.]
The cemetery is home to famous Argentinians, of which the most famous (or at least the most popular) being Eva Peron. Someone at the front gate drew an illegible map for finding her tomb, but in the end I just walked around until I found a horde of people and figured that would be it.
[Eva Peron at Recoleta Cemetery.]
Speaking of Eva Peron
The image of Eva Peron is all over the city. I spotted this building with her likeness emblazoned on the side, and she is also on the new 100 peso note.
Every time I saw her face I would spontaneously start singing to myself Don’t cry for Me Argentina. If I was to live in BA I would hope that that earworm would wear off as it would get old, real quick.
The steaks really are great
If you’re a carnivore there’s no way you are leaving BA without trying a steak. I was recommended a few famous places but I found the quality to be consistent where ever I went. If you want to find a cheap steak look around for places that offer lunch time deals. I found the portions to be manageable yet still generous, such as this steak lunch that was $3.90USD (if converting with blue dollars).
And the ice cream is amazing
I knew that steaks were famous here, and by extension I figured that there would be a respectable leather market as well, but how often do you hear about the ice cream of Argentina? I didn’t bother to try it for the first few days I was there, but once I did it became a daily addiction. I managed my addiction by getting the small size as they usually pack the cone tight (I sound like some sort of ice cream stoner). With a small size you can have two flavours, which start for as low as $15ARS ($1.10USD).
[My daily addiction.]
Empanadas are on sale everywhere and they make for a convenient snack, or a meal if you have a more than one. I was starting to get sick of eating these, especially when buying them from shops that are just reheating them in a microwave. Then I would find a place that makes them fresh and my love of the empanada would return.
The medialuna is a smaller and sweeter version of a croissant. Two or three medialunas and a coffee is the standard Argentinian breakfast.
[Breakfast – Argentinian style.]
The coffee situation is improving
Ahh yes, the coffee. I came to Argentina pre-warned that the coffee is terrible. I had a few coffees that were so bad that I added packets of sugar to mask the taste, and it still didn’t work. Fortunately though things are changing. I found some cafes that are world class, where Porteños have travelled the world, found out how coffee is meant to be made, and come back to set up cafes. To give you an idea of the evolution of the Buenos Aires cafe scene, Flat Whites are now available here, and are as good as any you would get in Australia/New Zealand.
One of my favourites was Coffee Town; a little cafe oasis set in the San Telmo market (different from the weekend fair). The market in itself is worth a visit if you are in this part of San Temlo.
There are also lots of great cafes in Palermo Soho, which is where all the cool kids are hanging out in Buenos Aires.
If there is one reason why there is not a good coffee scene here, it’s probably because of the national addiction to mate – the beverage derived from the yerba mate plant. Drinking mate is popular in subtropical South America, and walking around BA you will often see someone holding onto a mate gourd (the vessel used to drink mate).
I met up with Amy from Nomadtopia who lives in BA and I asked if she has tried it. Silly question, of course everyone here has tried.
I wanted to try it but it’s not like you can go to a cafe and get yourself a cup of mate, and buying the equipment to do it myself seemed wasteful, so Amy organised a picnic in the park with her Argentinian husband, Roberto, and friends, and I brought along another visiting friend, who brought along a friend who was visiting.
As there were a now a few of us who were mate virgins, Amy instructed on the preparation and customs of sharing a mate gourd.
[Amy on the mate.]
The drink is like a bitter herbal tea that is highly caffeinated.
[Roberto on the mate.]
It was alright, but not my cup of tea, so to speak.
[Mate Party – Mate is pronounced Mah-tay, so it’s a Mah-tay Par-tay (Pic by Jason Davenport)]
You say Malvinas, I say Falklands
I noticed at the airport and in the city a monument to the war in the Malvinas, known to us in the Commonwealth as the Falklands war. Any map you will see in Argentina of Argentina refers to the island group as the Malvinas. I met a number of British expats here and they had no problems or animosity shown towards them. I guess the usual advice applies – don’t mention the war!
[A monument to the lives lost in the Malvinas (Falklands)]
They went there!
If you are English another thing that may be on the back of your mind as you visit Argentina is Diego Maradona’s Hand of God incident. Of course there is no monument of Maradona fondling a football (or maybe there is and I missed it) but I got a chuckle out of this t-shirt I saw for sale around town.
[Hand of God Homer]
This was my first trip to South America and my head was filled with all the stories of the continent being a dangerous place. Of course there are dodgy neighourhoods in BA, but the city is so big that where visitors are staying in and exploring is like any other big city in the world.
There are bad neighbourhoods in US cities yet no one says not to go to the US, and there are seedy arrondissements in Paris but no one ever mentions that.
[A typical city scene around the world – people walking to work and a Starbucks in the background.]
There is lots of graffiti on the buildings here (it reminds me of Rome in that regard). Much of it is crap but among it there are some outstanding works of street art to be found around the city.
Some Famous Argentinians
You won’t go half an hour without seeing an Argentina jersey with the number 10 of Lionel Messi on it.
Pope Francis was born in BA and he is the first pope from Latin America, so he is kind of a big deal here.
Also from Argentina is the famous t-shirt entrepreneur, Che Guevara.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore
My Spanish is limited to food and numbers so I had little need to peruse a bookstore. Even if you’re not a Spanish reader, a visit to the El Ateneo Grand Splendid is a must.
This is a theatre that’s been converted into a bookstore. It reminds me of a church in Maastrict that has been converted into a bookstore.
When it comes to dancing I have two left feet so I opted out of embarrassing myself for a day at a tango class. There are tango shows advertised everywhere, or you could just find one of the many tango buskers to see what it is all about.
Bulk dog walking
One thing I noticed in Palermo was the bulk dog walking business. I saw many dog walkers with up to ten dogs at any one time. And often the dogs were sorted into size and colour groups.
9 de Julio Avenue – the widest avenue in the world
Cutting through the middle of central Buenos Aires is 9 de Julio Avenue – the widest avenue in the world.
[Avenida 9 De Julio]
This avenue is 22 lanes across, if you count the parking lanes on the edges and the bus lanes in the middle, and it will take you two sets of walking lights to cross the whole thing.
[Obelisk at Avenida 9 De Julio]
A bonus of having such a ridiculously wide road is that you can run a giant parade down a quarter of it and still not disrupt traffic.
[Parade on Avenida 9 De Julio.]
One saturday afternoon I went downtown to visit some shops and I happened upon this parade of Latin American culture.
I stopped to have a look and three hours later there was no end in sight of the parade. I had to drag myself away from it in the end.
Check out more photos of the parade here.
Buenos Aires Resources
Photos of my trip are in the Buenos Aires photo gallery, and more related links are in the Buenos Aires travel guide.
My flight to Buenos Aires was provided by KLM. From Buenos Aires I made my way to Montevideo, where I returned to London with Air France. Notes on Montevideo are coming up next.
iting, ah, Buenos Aires looks amazing! Out of all the cities in South America that I’m looking forward to visiting it’s Buenos Aires I’m most excited about. I’m pretty keen to be one of those travellers that end up staying longer than they expect!
Jimmy Dau says
Oh man I miss empanadas! That fixture of Eva Peron on the side of the building looks like she’s eating a burger.
Such a cool city! I love your photos! It seems wandering and discovering things on impulse is pretty easy here. As far as the safety part is concerned, I think any city in the world can be dangerous in some way, so the thumb rule should be to be careful.
Argentina was once one of the wealthiest countries in the early 20th century, that probably explains the plethora of magnificent old buildings in BA. The thing about official dollar vs. blue dollar shows how messed up Argentine’s economy has turned, and it’s not the first time. However, with yerba matte, good steaks, empanadas, and beautiful old edifices it’s not hard to love BA, I believe (at least for me, a hard-core tea lover). 🙂
Amy @ Nomadtopia says
Awesome write-up, James! It gives me renewed pride in my adopted hometown (and a pang of longing, since I just left again a few weeks ago!).
It was really fun to be part of your BA adventure, and I’m glad you gave mate a try, even if you didn’t love it. 🙂
One additional tip on the whole currency exchange issue: another option, if you don’t have a lot of dollars with you or are leary about exchanging on the black/blue market (and have a US bank account), is http://www.xoom.com, which allows you to transfer money to yourself (you pick up the cash in pesos at their local partner’s office), at a rate that’s nearly as good as the blue rate.
Thank you very much for a long post! I explored much of Buenos Aires with your photos. I love to see buskers in streets in foreign countries because few in Tokyo. Buskers are really artists in daily lives and when I see them, I feel, “I’m living!” And it’s my sweet memory that I did busk in foreign countries, too. It’s so exciting to see tango buskers in Argentina!
Oh how I miss BA from the music in the streets of Florida, food, and the architecture of the city. So much to see and do never a dull moment.
I have wanted to go to BA for so long, I just love how colourful and vibrant it looks in photos! El Ateneo Grand Splendid looks incredible as well.
Alex Dealy says
Dan Andrews sent me here and I loved the depth of your post, Buenos Aires looks lovely!
One insider tip to add: The dances in the parade that you saw were all 100% Bolivian. They’d be more than a little upset if you attributed them to other countries or cultures.
On the flip side, I’m glad you got to see it. The costumes are always stunning!
James Clark says
Hi Alex, thanks for dropping by!
Yes the Bolivian dancers were stunning to watch. They were part of the parade of Latin American culture so I presume all of the countries were parading that day. I saw Argentinian and Bolivian dancers in the parade (some had signs saying where they were from) but I had to leave before seeing the other countries.
Question: for long term nomads, where do you get your hands on US greenbacks to change at the blue rate? I assume that ATM’s change your money at the normal one…
James Clark says
Yes the ATM’s dispense Pesos so people living there long term make a day trip to Colonia in Uruguay where there are ATM’s that dispense USD.
super informative! I didn’t realise how beautiful BA is! the food looks mouth watering, and really makes this place jump up on my list.
Brian Hill says
James, I will making a flat white for breakfast tomorrow. Unfortunately I wont have any Argentine steak to go with my eggs! Keep up the great work! Brian.
Margie McClelland says
This is where we were robbed but didn’t realize it until about two hours later on Aventine 9 De Julio.
We were watching buskers on the Aventine 9 De Julio when something sprayed down on us which smelt terrible. Two people rushed up to clean us up, which they did very quickly. They took the money our of Chris’s wallet and replaced it and took my camera card reader back up. Luckily I had external hard drives with these photos saved on it as well. We didn’t realize until we arrived in Montevideo!!
I enjoyed your article James on BA, how wonderful to be there again in spirit!
James Clark says
sorry to hear about your experience 🙁 I have heard that this scam (or variant of) is common in South America and I was paranoid of it happening myself. Glad you could still like BA despite that!