Due to a visa mishap, a two day visa run to Buenos Aires from Salvador turned into a 28 day stay in the city – with two days worth of clothes! While unexpected, I still had a blast and I’m grateful for the time I got to spend in Argentina’s capital, and the opportunity to get intimately acquainted. By the end, apart from my terrible Spanish, I was starting to feel like a local.
Read on for some essential tips for travelling and staying in Buenos Aires and for a little bit of my experience there.
To find out about Capoeira in Buenos Aires, check out my other post Capoeira in Buenos Airies.
The currency of Argentina is the peso, and at the moment, it’s not worth very much. When I was there, 1 Brazilian Real was worth about 10 pesos, and 100 pesos was about US$4. I had some leftover US dollars that I took with me on the trip, and market sellers were particularly eager to take them off my hands.
One of the most obvious places I could see the falling value of the peso was every time I used a cash machine. The charge for withdrawing money was just a little bit more every time. Also, I was limited to withdrawing 300 pesos at a time. This was particularly frustrating as for my visa applications I needed to pay a pretty hefty fee in cash. I tried to go into a HSBC bank and make a big withdrawal, but they said I couldn’t with my international card. This means that I had to withdraw it in lots of 300 pesos, paying the fee every time. Not fun.
While Argentinians speak Spanis – which I generally understand thanks to my good grasp of Portuguese – I found people in Buenos Aires quite difficult to understand. I think it is because they spoke Spanish like they were Italians, with the same intonations and flair. Fortunately I found that as long as I spoke slowly, most people could understand my Portuguese, and, at least at all the touristy sites, I found that people spoke good English.
As well as speaking like Italians, I found that the people of Buenos Aires ate like Italians! Pizza and pasta were staples in restaurants.
BBQ was also extremely popular, with high quality meat that wasn’t salted (unlike Brazilian BBQ). The restaurants where you can grab BBQ meat, usually in a delicious meat sandwich, are called Parrilla. My favourite by far was a little hole in the wall near San Telmo Market (the covered antuiques market, not the street fair). I visited several times, and the wine there was good too!
The other food that Argentina is known for is the Empanada, which always made a great afternoon snack. Most days for lunch I would head to one of the many food by weight restaurants in the city centre so I could get a little bit of salad in amongst all the meat!
There were also quite a few good ice-cream palours as well. I would have eaten more, but it was a bit chilly in September.
I did a lot of walking during my time in Buenos Aires, as I definitely feel that it is the best way to see as much of the city as possible. But when travelling further distances, or travelling at night, I was grateful for the amazing metro system. The rides were cheap and easy to pay for with a Subte card, and it was possible to get pretty much everywhere in the main city. It was also easy to get a Subte card, which I just purchased at a convenience store with no need for ID or anything complicated. Topping up was just as easy, handing over cash and tapping the machine with my card. The machines also let you build up a little bit of debt, so you aren;t stuck if your card suddenly runs out of credit on a late nigt trip.
I didn’t try the bus service, as I always find these much harder to navigate than the metro. I only had to resort to an Uber twice, on a strike day when the metro was closed, and getting to the airport to leave the city at 2am on a Sunday morning. The Uber to the airport cost 600 pesos including road tariffs, which seemed to be good value.
While a lot of people told me that Buenos Aires is quite dangerous, I didn’t really feel it. There were always lots of people on the street, so it had that community feel that makes you feel safe. Also, in the centre of the city there were loads of police, just loads, which I suppose is supposed to make us feel safe.
I think how safe it is depends on the area. I was told that the area around the La Bomboneira is pretty dangerous and not to walk around there alone at night. When we were there taking photos outside the stadium, a car pulled up and offered to take our photo together if we gave them our phone to take the snap. Naturally, we rejected the ‘generous’ offer.
During my time in Buenos Aires there were a lot of strikes and demonstrations. Every day in the city centre there would be a group of people gathered for some reason or other, which I could not always discern. I had to wait an extra day for my visa at one point as no one was working in the embassy due to a strike. On another day, the metro itself was closed due to a strike. On this day there were also people marching through the streets all afternoon, and people selling BBQ and freshly squeezed orange juice, taking advantage of the number of people on the street.
Not having planned my stay, and unsure exactly how long I would be there as I awaited my documents, I split my time between two hostels in San Telmo, America del Sur and Art Factory. I found that both of them were cheap (about $10 a day), with good Wi-Fi, had a lively atmosphere where I could meet people, and extremely helpful staff. America del Sur was definitely the nicer of the two, with each dorm having its own private bathroom and just feeling a little bit cleaner in general. But the Art Factory had a great bar for chilling and probably felt a bit more social. I would definitely recommend both for English speaking travelers looking for basic, fun accommodation in the centre of Buenos Aires.
A hotel that I wouldn’t recommend is the red hotel next to America del Sur. It was raided by police early one morning and they escorted out three men in handcuffs and interviewed a long line of crying women…
When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I felt a bit like I could have been in any big European city. The same architecture and mix of shops and residential. The city overall was a bit disappointing in that way. But there were definitely things to see!
I stayed in San Telmo during my time in Buenos Aires, which meant that visits to San Telmo antique market, and the bars and restaurants on Defensa were a regular activity. A bit pricier than other areas due to the number of tourists, the bars and restaurants all had a good vibe about them.
On Sundays, Defensa Street turns into a big open air market, with stalls running up and down the street for about 5 kilometres. It has an arty vibe, and the artists selling their wares were happy to just talk about their work without laying on the pressure to buy. I did all my present shopping for the trip here, and managed to find something quirky, unusual, and reasonably priced for everyone. One of my favourite finds was this Bob Marley puppet! (Though I didn’t buy it in the end.)
More tempting for me when it came to making purchases was San Telmo antiques market. They say that Argentinians never throw anything out and that you can find anything there. It certainly felt like the case here. Clothes, watches, bags, tins, photographs (who buys someone else’s old family snaps?), if I wasn’t careful I could have spent a small fortune here. They also had a small stall near the centre where you could try interesting Argentinian wines by the glass.
Recoleta Cemetery was probably my favourite site. I have been a big fan of cemeteries ever since visiting New Orleans where I discovered some of their cemeteries, which are like little cities, with tombs built for families on little streets, with all the politics of who lives near who and whose place is bigger than whose. Recoleta cemetery is just like this, so it is a fascinating cultural experience, and the art of some of the tombs is just stunning. It covers about 14 acres and has over 4,500 tombs mostly dating from between 1880 and 1930. It was striking how many of the people interred there had military titles, speaking to the dominant role that the military has played in the history of Argentina.
As I chose to walk to Recoleta from where I was staying in San Telmo, I got to see a lot of sites on the way. I crossed quite a number of parks with fascinating statues, and grand trees with spreading roots.
The cemetery itself is located in a cultural centre with a number of art galleries, but the most interesting place I visited there was the small Church next door, Iglesia Nuestra Senora del Pilar, which had cloisters at the back filled with fascinating objects.
Palermo was another favourite spot! I actually visited hoping to go to see the animals at the Eco Park there, but it is closed to the public. I walked around the outskirts of the park and managed to glimpse a few animals, including a gorgeous hippopotamus, through the cracks in the fence, but overall it was a disappointment.
However, the trip led us up to a public park and rose garden where it was possible to relax and make some great photos and videos. It was just a shame that it wasn’t the right time of year for roses. Judging but the number of bushes, the place must be spectacular when they are all in bloom.
In Palermo we also went to the Japanese Gardens, which had a small entry fee, but was worth every penny. I felt transported in the middle of the city, it was spectacular.
I made my way to several museums and art galleries during my time in Buenos Aires, but to my surprise, my favourite turned out to be the Museo Historico Nacional. While it was certainly filled with portraits of old white men, like most museums, it also had an amazing collection of guns and swords! It also had a member of the military on duty standing perfectly still next to some particularly valuable items. I was watching him closely for secret movement…
An unexpected highlight was also the Museum of Puppets. Incredibly small, just three rooms, I still found myself transfixed by some of the puppets on display and wanting to know more about them. Unfortunately labelling was pretty limited. Also, I happened to go on a day when I had no money on me, and I got some serious evils from the woman working there who wanted loomed over me waiting for me to make a donation. I wanted to! But…
Of course, to any football fan, a visit to Buenos Aires is not complete without a visit to La Bomboneira, the home stadium of Boca Junior!! I have to admit to not being a huge football fan, and not having been familiar with the team of the stadium prior to the trip. However my partner, who joined me for a small portion of my time in Bueons Aires, was beyond excited.