Buenos Aires

December 1, 2016 – January 6, 2017 (Summer)

Length of stay: 36 days

Greeting: Hola, buen día

Gratitude: Gracias

Currency: Peso ($)

Visa: 90 days

Cost of living: High

Buenos Aires was never high on our list, but it found a way on anyway, and we’re glad it did. Our trip through South America required some serious trade-offs. We didn’t have a month to give to every country, and some (like Peru) ended up shortchanged. But we wound up in Buenos Aires for a reason – to catch a boat – and a season. It was an opportunity to see if we’d like “settling down” one place a bit longer than usual. We got to celebrate Christmas, New Year’s, even our one-year travel anniversary in this beautiful (but expensive) seaside megalopolis. In a lot of ways, life here felt upside down, and not just because we were in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time. We sweated while family in America complained about the snow. World-class wine and premium steaks were practically free, while a simple frying pan to cook them in might cost forty dollars or more. We had to be extra careful with our budget. But even living on the cheap, Buenos Aires rewarded us with rich memories and even richer meals.

Where we stayed

We picked an Airbnb↗ in the very core of Buenos Aires. Our neighborhood was so central it was in the name: Centro. The listing was slightly pricey for us, but for a roomy place in the heart of a major city, it was a steal. The building faced Avenida 9 de Julio – not only the widest avenue in the city, but in the entire world. But our unit faced the center of the block and stayed remarkably quiet. While the area bustled with well-dressed professionals on weekdays, weekend crowds thinned out considerably. It definitely felt like a business district. But we were also right where we needed to be to hit our intended attractions. Museums, parks, and fine dining were all just blocks away. For one of the more sprawling cities in South America, this level of walkability was priceless.

Sidewalk Etiquette

The apartment was spacious and beautiful. High ceilings, tasteful decorations, and exposed brick walls made the place feel hip. A spacious sofa and floor-to-ceiling bookcases made us feel cozy. It stayed fairly cool despite the summer heat, especially with the beautiful main windows open to the churchyard next door. However, bugs and construction noise from that same church conspired to keep them closed much of the time. Powerful aircon came in handy after dark, as the lingering heat of the day refused to dissipate until the wee hours of the night. The hall connecting the main living areas was not as fancy, but was at least interesting. It was clearly a walled-in former porch, sacrificing a more open interior for privacy and convenience.

The bedroom was nice, too. Big, comfy bed, nice decoration, plenty of space. The closet was enormous, a walk-in with lots of shelf space. Unfortunately, it was the preferred place for mosquitoes to hunt us, so we grew to hate it. The little jerks were especially infuriating this month, waiting until the lights were out and we were on the edge of consciousness before assaulting our exposed skin. They were also knew how to beat a hasty retreat and were clever hiders. After a few all-night hunting sessions, we pinged our host to request a fan (employing the classic moving-air deterrent from Merida), and she graciously had one sent over right away.

All those spacious rooms had to catch up with us somewhere, and in this case, the compromise was the kitchen. It was tiny. Barely big enough to open the fridge or the stove, let alone accommodate two cooks moving around each other. But it had everything we needed in terms of dishes and gadgets. And just outside was a small bar with rather nice wine glasses (the bar top doubled as a standing desk). We managed to turn out pretty memorable meals. Toasting fine Mendoza Malbec over big honking steaks in our chic downtown apartment made for some of our favorite dinners of this entire trip.

Our host went above and beyond several times this month. In addition to hooking us up with a fan, she met in person for both check-in and check-out and gave us a thorough neighborhood rundown. On two separate occasions, we found water leaking from our ceiling at an alarming rate. She responded to our frantic messages immediately, reaching out to the upstairs neighbor and building manager to investigate the issue. It turned out said neighbor was a bit batty and liked to wash her floors in the middle of the night by tossing buckets of water around. After the second emergency intervention, she she seemed to get the message and there were no more unplanned waterworks.

The doors to our little balconette were great for letting in fresh air, but we had to keep our guard up when they were open. It turned out a mama pigeon had singled out the ledge for her new roost. We noticed her nosing about a lot, until suddenly (pretty much overnight, actually) she manifested a sad little pile of twigs in the corner. We maybe should have swept it off then, but we thought we had more time – surely this wasn’t the whole nest? It was. A day or two later, a pair of eggs appeared just as suddenly as the nesting debris, and then a couple weeks later, at least one hideous chick (for real, pigeons produce some seriously ugly offspring). Even though dealing with some dirty bird’s poor decision making was a minor pain, we got some amusement from watching the miracle of life unfold on our windowsill.

What we did

Plenty of famous writers called Buenos Aires home. In celebration of the city’s love of literature, bookstores abound. Perhaps the most grand and splendid of these is the modestly-named El Ateneo Grand Splendid. It was built in a former theater, the stage now a cafe and the floor and balconies stacked full of bookshelves. Though their English-language selection was small, it was a great place to discover more Latin American authors. A better choice for native-language reading was the adorable Walrus Books. It’s located in San Telmo and is no more than a small nook, but it had some surprising bargains and was one of the coziest bookshops we’ve been inside. We felt like were were back in Ophelia’s Books in Fremont, half a world away.

It seems like we visit at an almost worrying↗ number of cemeteries↗, but for once, this was thoroughly justified and normal. La Recoleta Cemetery is one of the city’s top tourist attractions. More than just a burial place, it is a showcase of architecture and sculpture, and a who’s who of famous Argentines. Hundreds of political leaders and celebrity porteños are buried here, including “Evita,” Eva Perón. Though her grave is a relatively simple affair, it has become a bit of a shrine and point of pilgrimage. Tombs and their associated statuary ranged from stark and modern to Egyptian revival to neoclassical. Dozens of tour groups filter in and out during the day, stopping at prominent graves and tracing the nation’s history. Our tour was more self-guided. We navigated using crowd avoidance, Pokémon Go, and the map by the entrance as our instruments.

Closer to our apartment, we found Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, a massive wilderness park and ecological reserve on the banks of the Río de la Plata. More than 800 acres of marshy lowlands offer city dwellers a much-needed break from asphalt overload. In this part of town, the waterfront is mostly dominated by ports and industry. But miles of hiking and biking paths span the length and breadth of this island, and reunite the booming Puerto Madero neighborhood with the sea. Egrets and snakes live in the shadow of skyscrapers. We spent several afternoons looping the long shore path to escape the clatter of the city. Clustered around the gates are food stands selling everything from ice cream to entire parrillas (and bottled water – remember to stay hydrated in the heat!).

Art museums in the New World generally have a hard time staking up against the Old, but Buenos Aires bucks that trend. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes had the biggest collection of local and European pieces, most of it older (by American standards). A temporary exhibit with modern, almost video game-esque sculpture topped off our visit there. In San Telmo, the Museum of Modern Art filled in the gaps from the Bellas Artes collection to today. We especially enjoyed the temporary exhibits showcasing work by Antonio Berni’s and intriguing paper assemblages Hernán Soriano. The Latin American Art Museum gathered pieces from all over the continent (and a bit of Central America). A lot of it was political – trying to create something expressive while suffering under colonialism, imperialism, or dictatorship can be a bit politicizing for an artist. Fortabat Art Collection was one of those private collection-turned-museum situations. Many offer free or reduced admission on certain days, and we timed our visits to match up with the discounts. Even the parks had free art on offer, most famously a giant flower sculpture, the Floralis Genérica, that opens and closes with the sun.

Unfortunately, there were no sky lanterns this New Year’s Eve. Instead, we stayed indoors most of the day to avoid the heat, then headed down to Puerto Madero for the fireworks show. As we wound our way through the streets and midnight loomed, we noticed larger and larger crowds attempting the same plan. Still, we made it to ground zero just in time to watch the official display light up the sky (and dozens of intrepid amateurs pitching in their own pyrotechnics). We had no desire to squeeze into the noisy, sweaty bars, but we did have good time just walking around and people-watching. Some families brought whole dinners – table and chairs included – right to the front lines of the celebration. We wished each other another year of happy marriage and travels, then went home and slept to the soothing sounds of an all-night firecracker warzone.

Food & Drink

We thought that the United States was a big beef country, but we were wholly unprepared for the level of love Argentina has for its bovines. The US has about one head of cattle for every four people in the country. In comparison, Argentina has five for every four humans. Consumption is a more competitive metric than production, but even then, Argentina blows America out of the water. We eat an exorbitant 80 lbs of beef per person per year, putting us in 4th place worldwide. Argentina consumes half again as much. Only Uruguay has them beat, and only barely. Suffice to say, steak is a a big deal here.

It’s also cheap. The country limits its exports to keep domestic prices low, irritating farmers but preserving the affordability of beef as a national right. We’re not usually big on red meat, but we would have been foolish to pass up these deals. We cooked premium steaks for a dollar or two. Sometimes they were too big even to fit in a single pan. And everything was so good! Grass-fed animals grew tender and flavorful grazing the fertile lowlands of the Pampas. Cooking was so easy – with ingredients this perfect, all we had to do was not screw them up. Unfortunately, this meant mostly avoiding the local parrillas. Argentinians as a rule like their meat well-done, basically sacrilege where we’re from. A few are learning to accommodate foreign tastes though, and the steakhouses we stopped in definitely know their stuff.

Recipe time!

Since not every kitchen apartment is created equal, we sometimes have to improvise. Often important cookware or utensils are missing, even major appliances. We often try to include a low-to-moderate-effort but delicious dish that we pulled off with out limited facilities. Not necessarily gourmet, just a nice meal that doesn’t take all day. This stop’s “mystery kitchen” recipe is…

Pan-Seared Steak

Aside from the very American-seeming steak-and-forgettable-side dinners, the cuisine was much more European than we expected for Latin America. Massive waves of immigration from Italy, Spain, and Germany, Argentina made it the whitest country on the continent. And when it came to their cooking, it showed – not one iota of spice anywhere. Pasta and pizza were popular, as were empanadas and sausages. But to our taste buds, it was all awfully plain. We had to track down a specialty shop, El Gato Negro, to satisfy our passion for piquant peppers.

So, we preferred to do our own cooking. Disco was the closest stop for groceries, while Carrefour offered a slightly larger selection in exchange for a much longer walk. Both carried the staples (sugar, salt, starch, and snacks), but often seemed to be missing familiar items, like herbs and spices or chicken and pork. Groceries (especially produce) were pricey too, at least in our neighborhood. Frozen vegetables were awful, all just bean/corn/carrot mixes. Even the coffee selection was dismayingly limited and expensive. And to add insult to injury, the poor-quality grounds were almost all sold pre-mixed with some horrid sweetener (maybe for local tastes, maybe to pad the dry weight). This was an awful month to be a coffee drinker. Instead, yerba mate was the clear king. All those aisles that should have showcased food or goods instead had endless sacks of the tea-like herb. The country seems to be in a rivalry with Uruguay over which is more obsessed with the stuff. (We can’t speak to the hinterlands, but between the two capitals, Montevideo had the edge.)

Chinese minimarts scattered across the city sometimes offered better prices and a more interesting selection. That’s where we found peanut butter, for example, as well as a variety of otherwise hard-to-find ramen noodles.

Porteños definitely had a bit of a sweet tooth, which made this an exciting stay for Danielle. Dulce de leche is probably the most ubiquitous flavor. Made from caramelized sweetened milk, it has roughly the consistency of honey but a much plainer flavor. Frankly, we didn’t see what all the fuss was about. A dollop can be used to top anything, but we found it made a good caramel-esque dip for apples. It was also the central ingredient in alfajores, a confection made of two cookies sandwiched together with sticky cream. The flavor itself was popular, especially as a flavor of ice cream or gelato. Speaking of, we thought the ice cream at Freddo was incredible. Easily the best gelato we’ve had outside Italy. The tiramisu flavor was quite possibly their masterpiece – no matter what size we ordered (even half a kilo), we’d be asked if we wanted a lid. The assumption being that it should be eaten in its entirety, immediately, and with no leftovers? On the other end of the spectrum was dulce de membrillo, another goodie that just didn’t gel with us. Odd, because it was literally a gelatin-like goop made from condensed fruit, or even sweet potato. It was also a component of pan dulce, the local take on fruitcake, which was every bit as saccharine and vile as the American version. Who ever decided this was how we should celebrate the Christmas season?

Nothing goes better with steak than a glass of red wine, and Argentina did not disappoint. This was simply the best wine we’ve had since Portugal↗. The signature grape was Malbec, especially from Mendoza, the most prestigious region. We previously only liked it in blends – it never really stood up on its own. But here was a different story. Every one we tried was fabulous and well-structured, easily standing up to the hearty meat dishes that abound. Any grocery store or minimart had a massive selection of local wines, and while all price points were represented, we drank like royalty for no more than $6 a bottle. The only thing that surprised us more than the quality was how bizarrely absent wines from anywhere else (France, Italy, etc) were. Maybe with inflation driving up the cost of imports and so much incredible production right in their backyard, it just makes sense to stick with the home team goods.

We tried other varietals as well, of course. Bonarda is another local favorite, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot, and Syrah were common as well. Thanks to the quality, value, and just by virtue of a longer stay, Argentina was easily the high water mark for our wine consumption this trip. Not that any of it needed fixing, but we even mulled a little of it to get into the Christmas spirit (despite the 90 degree day). It wasn’t easy to find a locally-made brandy for this, but Reserva San Juan Coñac turned out to be perfectly fine. The local liquor of choice is Fernet-Branca, a bewilderingly popular bitter liqueur. We didn’t find any redeeming qualities when we tried it, but we did try it – and now we never have to again.

Beer, on the other hand, was a disappointment. Patagonia and Quilmes were two of the mass-market brands we tried. Patagonia had the slight edge in taste, but at a much higher price. The bottle return scheme was a bit more annoying here than we were used to. Big, liter-ish reusable bottles were marked “envase retornable,” (“no retornable” for disposable ones) and many supermarkets had automated return stations somewhere in the back. But the refund they provided only came off the purchase of another bottle and wasn’t redeemable for cash. We ended up paying our vouchers forward at the end of the month by leaving them in the beer aisle for some lucky shopper to find.

Stuff of interest

Steak Overload
Big Tube Exporter
Crazy Inflation
It Takes Two
To Tango

We opted for Personal as our mobile provider↗. We bought the SIMs at a Personal shop (passports were required), but we had to head to a minimart to buy top-up credit. Data bundles required texting a specific code to a company number, but before we even had an opportunity to do so, background data burned off enough of our brand-new credit that we couldn’t afford the package. A small second top-up the next day got it working properly, but we learned a valuable lesson to turn off data while we’re waiting to convert a recarga into a phone package.

Inflation in Argentina is currently among the highest in the world – as much as 30-40% per year. This produces some unique problems (and solutions) that really took us by surprise. Workers might receive a cost-of-living raise multiple times a year. Prices change rapidly, as seen on items with a thick coat of price stickers on the box, or a fast-food menu with write-in numbers. It wasn’t uncommon for some stores to have no price tags whatsoever – easier for customers to ask the cost of anything they’re interested than to print new labels every few months. There were some clever workarounds, too. Almost everything can be bought on installment plans (amortize the cost over time and let inflation work for you!). Many stores employ a complicated system of credit card discounts and loyalty programs to lower prices and increase retention. But mostly, things just cost more here. Electronics and appliances were especially brutal, maybe $50 US for a fan, well over a thousand for a cell phone. This may help explain the notoriously high rate of pickpocketing and purse-snatching in this city.

The government has done away with the regulated exchange rate that sparked the underground shadow economy and “blue rate” (a black-market exchange rate that sometimes differed from the official rate by as much as 50%). Still, plenty of people still ply the main tourist avenues offering to change currency at a favorable rate (now usually within 5% of the official one). We used an ATM to get pesos, wary of the possibilities of being scammed or robbed in an illicit transaction. Fees were high and the maximum withdrawal rate was fairly low (maybe to minimize fraud, maybe just to maximize fee revenue). Our foreign-ATM-fee-refunding bank card earned its keep this month.

When we were researching Argentina’s beef industry, we were shocked to learn just how little of it gets sold abroad. The animal hides are a bigger part of the country’s exports↗ than the meat is. Also bigger: wine, milk, crude oils of the petroleum and safflower varieties, and uh, tubes►?

We flew in to the primary airport Ezeiza, way on the edge of town. It was easy enough to get in to the city though. For about $13 per person, Manuel Tienda Leon bussed us from the airport to their downtown terminal, then transferred us to a van for delivery right to our apartment door. But the city has another airport, Jorge Newbery, right on the water downtown – kind of like the old Meigs Field in Chicago. It serves fewer flights, but seeing planes take off so close to skyscrapers in this day and age was pretty incredible.

The Spanish dialect spoken in this area, known as Rioplatense, challenged everything we thought we knew about the language. Mexican Spanish was familiar to us as Americans. Peruvian was rapid, but consistent. But Argentina and Uruguay are their own confusing► world. One of the main differences is the double-L, “ll.” In Spanish this should be a “y” sound, but here it shifts to “sh.” As in cashe for street, or posho for chicken. The accent had an almost Italian musicality to it. And naturally, the slang varied widely as well. We were generally pretty well understood when we spoke, but we couldn’t always make out the responses. Luckily, practicing was easy with frequent language exchange meetups like Mundo Lingo. We weren’t the only ones that thought the local lingo was practically a new language. TV shows and movies already dubbed in Spanish were localized further here, with Rioplatense subtitles!

Christmas is different in the Southern Hemisphere. Lights were strung up on palm trees at the height of summer. Santa still had a heavy-duty suit, but the elves favored beach wear rather than polar gear. We searched in vain for Christmas cards to send our families and didn’t find any, and most Christmas trees were well outside our price range. But we nevertheless managed to put together our own celebration – tiny lights on a tiny tree, and under that (well, alongside it) a few presents to ourselves.

What we learned

Pretty obvious in retrospect, but maybe check how expensive the place you intend to live is on a cost of living comparison site↗ first. We saved money over staying in Seattle, but almost more in spite of the local prices than thanks to them. Still worth it, though!

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