We visited Buenos Aires from Feb 9 to March 1, 2018.
Here are some notes for fellow Canadians thinking about visiting Buenos Aires.
Taking a vacation in Buenos Aires as a Canadian requires some planning. If you do not enjoy planning, don’t go just yet. If the trend holds through to 2020, it’ll become easier and easier to visit.
These notes are for Canadians.
Getting There: The Flight
We did Air Canada 92, which flies to Buenos Aires via Santiago, Chile. The flight was late because of mechanical issues prior to its Morning run to Beijing, via Vancouver. Delays are the rule, not the exception, with AC 92. Check out FlightAware to verify for yourself. It has a terrible on time performance. A direct flight to BA is scheduled to start this summer. Air Canada doesn’t have any slack in its 777 fleet so it is subject to weather delays in Europe, Montreal, Vancouver, and Asia.
We did economy. The Air Canada 777 uses a 3-4-3 configuration. The first leg of the trip averages 11 hours including taxi and de-icing. The seats are tight. It is uncomfortable. You should bring head support that enables your neck to drift left or right slightly. It takes around 2 hours to turn the plane in Santiago, and then it’s about an hour to EZE over some beautiful Andes.
It’s a red eye flight and the time zones are working for you, not against you. After the first meal, you ought to be able to get in 6 to 7.5 hours of sleep before the breakfast.
Getting There: Customs
Three major lines – one for Argentinos, one for Mercosur passport holders, one for foreigners. You’ll be photographed and thumb-printed as a foreigner. It took around 30 minutes to get through. No air conditioning. Customs officer did not speak much English and was mostly concerned if we were coming down to work. (Which I found weird and delightful as the though never occurred to me).
Getting There: EZE to Downtown
Chances are that you’ll exit customs between 6 and 9pm local time. Even though the Banco de la Nacion at the airport is supposed to be open 24 hours, it was not open when we arrived.
We exchanged a 100 US note at a rate that is close to the rate we looked up on Google.We got 19.1 at the airport. Google predicted 19.5 pesos for a USD. When we left, 20 days later, it was at 20.0.
We went to the booth to order a taxi downtown.
Tip the young person leading you out from the airport to the taxi that’s waiting.
The ride takes 45 minutes into the central core and in the evening wind, it is a nice trip.You should not expect any taxi driver to speak English. The driver did not speak English.
If you live in downtown Toronto, the total time from your door at home to your door at the hotel is around 22 hours with standard delays (Or 24 hours if you set your watch on push-back to Buenos Aires time).
There are two reasons for taking a taxi directly to your hotel from the airport. The first is that you’re likely to be tired, and if you’re visiting in January, February, or March – you’ll be hot, tired and dehydrated.
The second is that you’ll need a Sube card to board the local bus into the city. That local bus will take 2.5 to 3 hours to make its way to the core, which grossly inflates your door to door time. And second, there’s a procedure for getting that Sube card.
To get a SUBE card, we needed our passport and some pesos to buy it from a tourist kiosk. At the time is cost us 25 pesos for one card. We could trade the card between the two of us to tap onto busses, mitre and subway.
Your SUBE account is typically debited between 7.5 and 12 pesos per person per trip/mode. It got cheaper as we used it – one trip was just 5.50 pesos.
It’s quite affordable and the system is more reliable and faster than the TTC.
If you’re travelling as a pair, you just need one Sube card. Get the card, scan through the barrier, and then pass the card back to your partner. It’s really easy.
If you have a Sube card, and enough pesos loaded onto it, and the time to take the bus out to the airport, you can do that going out, although, we did not risk it.
Buenos Aires is not in the Anglosphere, and is only partially globalized. Not everyone has an English vocabulary of 100 words. However, learning 40 core Spanish verbs and 60 core Spanish nouns is barely sufficient to get through a stay.
It’s just been in the past year that government policies have been oriented towards enabling Canadian and American tourism to start up again. It’s easier to do many things than before. There is no reciprocity fee. It is a bit easier to get around. It is likely a lot safer to be a tourist.
We brought US money. Clean bills. Kept flat in an envelope. 50’s and 100’s only.
Bank machines suck. They don’t carry a lot of money and the fees for getting money from Toronto to Buenos Aires are high.
Major general banks suck. You take a number and sit in a waiting room.
Credit card machines in restaurants and shops suck. Even they’re advertised on the door, they’re usually broken. Mysteriously. So don’t expect to pay using credit cards or your debit card.
We didn’t want to spend time doing things that sucked, so we brought hard cash, exchanged it, and paid in hard cash.
This requires planning. And sometimes, plans do not survive.
We got in during a four day weekend and the main banks were closed. So we found two banks that were open near Miami Station. This tourist area has loads of touters shouting CAMbeeeeeeeoooooo (Camino). We didn’t use the touters – while they were offering 20:1, and the mini banks were offering 19.6 — We didn’t want to take the chance of getting passed counterfeit bills.
Bring your passport. They’ll enter it into a system. Then sit and wait to be called into a little booth. Print your name, sign, and write down your passport number. They’ll count out your cash. Sometimes they count it in front of you. Sometimes they bring it to a machine and count it out there.
When we visited, annual inflation was running at 25%. And the price expectations were very sticky. Every union kept on asking for 25% raises because they didn’t believe the efforts to bring down inflation would work. As a Canadian, you may remember, or have been taught relentlessly in university, about the Monetarist Paradigm and the heroic saga of how the Bank of Canada slew the inflation dragon. The Bank Of Canada spiked the interest rate to 22% to kill inflation, people lost their houses (!) and don’t you ever forget it.
Argentina has a different history with the Central Bank. It’s a history that includes an era when The Economist didn’t even report the made up inflation number a government put out. It’s a history of failed currency pegs and export-substitution. Inflation is normal here. But it won’t feel normal to you.
As a direct result, it’s relatively easy to convert US dollars into pesos, but not the other way around. Only convert what you’re going to spend. And know that the money will have lost a lot of worth when you go back again. The peso is not a store of value at this point. Indeed, the USD is a store of value for retirement and real estates seems to be USD denominated.
The prices of different goods are strange. Things that are made in Argentina – beef, service, cheese, wine, bottled water, and leather goods are of a good value. Things that are made anywhere else are 35% more expensive than what you’d expect in Toronto. You can see this split in supermarkets. You’ll see very affordable prices on stone fruit, apples, chicken, water and salad. You’ll see strange prices on toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant and paper supplies.
The Savoy Hotel
We chose to stay at The Savoy Hotel, just two blocks North from Congress. We had easy access to three subte lines – the A, B, and D.
The Hotel is fantastic. Physically, the hotel is beautiful to look at. Rooms are well maintained. The staircase is fantastically usable and the lobbies are pleasant. Ceilings are high. The art is nice. The hotel is well maintained.
Front Desk has folks that speak perfect English, French and Spanish.
The touristy areas are Centro and Palermo. I didn’t think too much of Palermo, but it was easy and had elements of Canada. Centro is fine.
We had a hard time finding a bad meal to eat. If you want beef, it is aged and good. If you want fish, it is fresh. If you want salad, it is almost always complete.
With the exception of Toronto, one should never order food that is not from the city or country that you’re visiting. In Buenos Aires, you may consider Italian cuisine to be a part of its history. The pizzas and pastas are excellent. The beef has a more natural flavour to it than what you’ll find in Toronto. The ham is on par with Toronto, but not Barcelona quality.
The country is not hot so neither is the food. You can expect to taste pepper, dairy based creams, salt, and oregano.
10% tip is standard and service is somewhere between Paris and Barcelona levels. Not quite as bad as Paris. Not early as warm as Barcelona.
Nearly every local restaurant had an old papa. We did not encounter a local restaurant with a matriarch. We found this unusual.
We liked Cervantes Restaurant – which appeared to be popular with locals and families. The pepper sauce steak and Chorizo Emperadoro are excellent. Eduardo is a very good, nice, helpful waiter. Top notch.
We also enjoyed Norte restaurant just off Santa Fe. Both beef de chorizo and seafood were excellent.
We did not encounter many vegan friendly places. Salads tend to come with eggs, ham and cheese. We didn’t see any tofu dishes. You have been notified.
They eat late. Lunch is served between noon and 2pm. Supper doesn’t get going until 8pm to 8:30pm at most places. Most good restaurants do not serve between 4pm and 8pm. This can take some adjusting to.
On foot, we didn’t go South of the 25th of May highway nor North of Retiro station, nor on the surface around Once Station. We don’t know if it’s safe in those zones, but we read warnings and didn’t go.
There are signs everywhere that there was a time of extreme crime. There are a lot bars on many windows and many people carry their bags on their chest. We noticed a lot of city place on foot, stationed on corners around the city.
You shouldn’t be stupid. Keep your wallet and passport locked up when you aren’t using them, don’t flash your cash around, and don’t let people rub up against you on the subway.
If you’ve only ever travelled within the Matrix (Canada, US, Western Europe, NE Asia) then Buenos Aires is a solid middle city between the developing world and the post-industrial world.
Buenos Aires is to South America as Singapore is to Asia.
You can be safe here. But you’ll see shit here.
We saw children sleeping out with their parents on the streets and bloodied homeless. We saw a ton of hustling. We saw a lot of poor people.
You’ll see a lot of good stuff here.
We also saw a lot of development and construction. They have a version of CityPlace down near the waterfront. There’s evidence of trade and entrepreneurship all about. A lot of people hustle.
Museums and Things Around Buenos Aires
We took the Mitre to Tigre. You can use your Sube card to get there. When we went the train crawled most of the way, owing to construction and old tracks. Even though it’s around 25 km from Retiro station to Tigre, it takes an hour. Bring a book and read.
Tigre is to Buenos Aires as Barrie is to Toronto. Only warmer. And with boats. We took the two hour boat ride all the way around an island in the delta. If given the choice between the 1 hour and 2 hour, do the 2 hour so you can see the social geography up one side of the island and the physical geography down the other side.
Tigre has a nice downtown. If you’re feeling adventurous, cross the bridge and walk along the waterfront to the naval museum and the art museum. Return using the waterfront path as the main roadway isn’t too walkable. The town of Tigre has chosen the trees over the sidewalks.
We took the train to La Plata. You can use your Sube card to get there. It’s around 50km from Constitucion to La Plata, but thanks to the renovation of the tracks and electrification, the trip takes around 70 minutes.
La Plata is to Buenos Aires as Kitchener-Waterloo is to Toronto. It has its own thing going on and there’s a big university. We walked 20 minutes to the La Plata Museum and were not disappointed. It has a solid collection of South American civilization artifacts and a decent dinosaur exhibit. From a natural history perspective, is is not as good as the Royal Tyrrell museum in Drumheller, Canada, or the Natural History museum in New York, but it is superior to Buenos Aires. Reviews that state otherwise are hyperbole.
In total, the local rail system plus the Sube enables you to day trip to a whole bunch of places. We didn’t need to use a taxi other than coming from, or going to, the airport.
Buenos Aires isn’t easy. If you want easy, buy a package holiday where they pick you up from the airport and dump you on a beach resort, or keep to The Matrix.
Buenos Aires requires planning.
It requires you to forecast your daily burn rate and bring an amount of USD that will work out for you.
It requires you to bring a passport to get a few things.
It requires you to know at least 100 words to function.
Buenos Aires isn’t that hard, either. The water is clean. The power stayed on. There isn’t malaria or dengue or yellow fevers. Unlike Toronto, their version of Presto actually works. There’s a modern subway system. There’s a modern electric train system. The food is great.
It’s like a Singapore to South America. That is to say, it’s like South America, but not quite. It has elements of the Matrix, but not quite.
What you’ll like, as a Canadian, the respite from the winter. The air really was quite nice and the weather was fantastic. It hugs you. The people are very clearly Argentinos, and they have some Canadian-like qualities, in that they’re nice and they’re generally nice to each other. There’s an understanding of personal space.
You may really like it. It might be for you.
Notes for Entrepreneurial Data Scientists
Pros to Buenos Aires:
- Decent physical infrastructure;
- Decent social infrastructure (there is a data science community);
- It’s summer down here when it’s winter up there;
- The time zone is right smack between Western Europe and Eastern Time Zone;
- Remote enough to focus on real planning;
- Direct flights to Western Europe, United States east coast.
Cons to Buenos Aires:
- Banking infrastructure is a massive challenge;
- Inflation is unusual and will complicate your projections;
- It can be tough to get guests down, hold junket conferences;