Observations from 7 weeks in Buenos Aires

In November of 2016, I left my 9-to-5 office job and started working for a remote-based marketing agency, which has since given me the freedom to work from anywhere in the world. I first set my sights on Buenos Aires, where I ended up staying for 7 weeks.

A little context: When I first arrived in Buenos Aires (or “Bs As” as the locals refer to it), I stayed with my friend Carolina and her brother, who were both total godsends when I arrived. They took me in while I looked for a place to stay (which turned out to be much more difficult ordeal than I had originally predicted).

After staying with them for a month, I moved to an AirbnB for another month, where I stayed with two Argentinian guys in a different part of the city. They often had asados (barbeques) at the house and invited me to join them whenever they did.

So…after all of that, here are a few things that I learned about Argentinian (or Porteño culture)…

Driving 

I think this might be more of a South American thing, but pedestrians don’t have the right of way in Buenos Aires. Cars just don’t stop for pedestrians (even at crosswalks where there is no pedestrian signal). You can be in the middle of a crosswalk and cars will not even slow down. They will just continue to barrel towards you. After nearly getting run over several times (quite literally), I learned my lesson–cross with extreme caution and NEVER assume that a car will stop for you.

The Language

Pretty much every Spanish-speaking person I’ve met seems to be obsessed with Argentine Spanish. It sounds like Italian-influenced Spanish, singsongey and melodic. One Argentinian guy friend of mine lived in Barcelona for some time and told me that Spanish girls would go loco for his accent. I found the same to be true of my friend, Carolina. Personally, it also happens to be one of my favorite accents, as well.

To the outside ear, Argentine Spanish can take some getting used to. My Spanish is still pretty basic at this point, but here are a few things I’ve found…

The “y” sound becomes a “sh” sound. So instead of saying “yo,” it sounds like “sho.”

“LL” is pronounced as “Sh,” so “llevar” is pronounced like “shevar” and “calle” is pronounced “cashay.”

What I love is that Argentinians don’t say “de nada” (you’re welcome), they say “no, por favor” (no, please). They don’t say “todo bien (all good),” they say “todo bien, por suerte” (all good, thankfully).

Argentine Spanish (or at least Porteño Spanish) has a lot of Italian influence, with some words that are taken from Italian. Laburar (to work) is a slang word that is taken from the Italian word “lavorare.” Fiaca (laziness) is another word that is taken from the Italian word “fiacca” (weariness).  The list goes on…

There is one expression I recently learned which I love: viejos son los trapos, which means basically that things are old, not people. You will probably never hear an old person being called viejo or “old” in Argentina. I noticed that waiters, for instance, even address middle-aged (and older) women as “chicas” (girls). In Argentina, everyone is treated young, no matter their age. “Old” doesn’t exist.

One thing I’ve found is that while I tried to speak Spanish all of the time, many people would respond in English to me (to which, I would respond back in Spanish or simply say “español esta bien”)…I found that this very rarely happens in Colombia (where far fewer people speak English). So if you are just passing through Buenos Aires, you could probably get by on unicamente ingles (only English). But at least ask “Hablas ingles?” before assuming. You’d be surprised how many foreigners (ahem, Americans) don’t seem to do this.

Fashion

Women in Argentina seem to love wearing these hideous five-inch platform shoes, which for whatever reason, have become a trend in Buenos Aires. They look a little something like this…

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And EVERYONE (at least all young people) wears them.

Cost of Living/Prices

Word on the street is that Bs As used to be quite cheap. Not so much anymore. Everyone warned me that it was an expensive city, but I guess I didn’t realize just how expensive it was. While definitely less costly than other major cities like London, New York and Paris, it’s definitely not cheap.

For a decent room in a shared apartment in a desired neighborhood (like Palermo or Recoleta), you’ll pay upwards of $600 USD. If you don’t mind living a bit off the beaten path or in a tiny (and I mean, tiny) room, you can pay less than that, like $375 maybe.

A coffee in a nice coffee shop is upwards of 50 pesos or $3 USD. A take-out meal normally doesn’t cost less than 150 pesos or $10 USD. If you want healthy, organic food, you’ll pay closer to $20 USD (or more). When I ate lunch out, I found that eating at a nice, healthy restaurant in Palermo (sit-down), I would pay about $30.

Two beers in Palermo (admittedly one of the more expensive neighborhoods of Bs As) will cost you about 200 pesos or $13. A cocktail at a nice bar costs about twice that, 200 pesos (or more), for one cocktail.

Groceries are not cheap either and probably even more expensive than the U.S., for lower quality. I would pay about $100 USD for a week’s worth (maybe less) of groceries.

As someone who is quite health-conscious and picky about what I put in my mouth, I found it difficult and frustrating to grocery shop in Buenos Aires. The selection is much more limited for health-conscious eaters and finding things like Himalayan sea salt, healthy crackers, goji berries and the like isn’t easy (I realize I probably sound like a spoiled, pretentious brat even saying that!). Also, many of the fruits and vegetables looked practically rotten, sometimes with flies all around them. Gross.

At the smaller markets, many of the fruits and vegetables were kept in containers, wrapped up in plastic (see right photo below)…

Frankly, I found it difficult to find what appeared to be fresh fruits and vegetables. There are some smaller markets that sell healthy, organic foods, but still not even close to the same selection that you can find back in the U.S.

Food & Drinks 

On that note, it’s not easy to be vegan or vegetarian in Buenos Aires. While there are more and more healthy restaurants opening up around the city, this is the land of meat. People love to have asados, or barbeques, on the weekend, and the abundance of rooftops and terraces (every house or apartment seems to have one) bode well for that.

A typical breakfast here consists of some medialunas (croissants) and coffee.

And, oh, the wine…This is one thing that is not only delicious in Argentina, but also relatively inexpensive. Wine-lovers rejoice.

Fernet, which, let’s just say, is an acquired taste, is another alcoholic drink that you will hear a lot of in Argentina.

And then there’s mate, which is like an herb tea. Mate is everywhere in Argentina. People drink it out of a tin cup filled with herbs and at parties and get-togethers, you will probably see a thermos filled with hot water, which they pour into the tea cup every so often, and then pass around for everyone to drink. Like so…

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One thing that I love, which I had never had before, is coffee tonic, which is a cold brew coffee with tonic water – expensive but surprisingly delicious. This is a thing in Buenos Aires I found.

Getting Around

There are three ways that I got around: Uber (or taxis); the bus or the metro. The metro is very limited, so in terms of public transportation, you’ll probably be relying mostly on the bus. In order to take the bus or metro, you’ll need to get a card–and recharge it before boarding. If the card runs out while you’re on the bus, you have two passes which you can pay off another time and then you won’t be able to use it all. If that happens, you will have to ask a fellow passenger to pay for you (and give them the 7 pesos or whatever it is).

Uber exists only for people who have a foreign bank card–because of the taxi competition, people with Argentine bank cards are prohibited from using Uber. Uber drivers will often ask passengers to sit in the front seat (and pretend that they are friends), because if a taxi driver notices an Uber driver, he may pick a fight (Yup, I have heard of this actually happening).

Culture

Buenos Aires feels more like a European city than anything else. And this isn’t just in the architecture (Recoleta, in particular, feels like a little Paris) and the city itself, but in the behavior of the people, as well. Everyone greets each other with a kiss on the cheek. Men will even greet other men this way.

People tend to be very nice and friendly once you start talking to them, but at least from my experience, they generally won’t strike up a conversation with you on the bus or in the middle of the street. Of course part of this surely has to do with being in a big city–I’m sure it’s also a bit different in other parts of Argentina.

What’s interesting to me is that, despite its proximity, Argentina is culturally so different from neighboring countries (like Brazil, for instance). Argentinians themselves have told me that people are happier, more carefree and laid-back in Brazil (or at least seem so).

Another example: In Brazil, there isn’t much of a cafe culture. People tend to drink coffee standing up at juice bars. In Buenos Aires, like Paris, there is a huge cafe culture. Cafes are everywhere and you will often see people sitting outside with friends, sipping on a coffee.

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The vibe is just completely different from Brazil–and it seems, the rest of South America. It really did feel like I was in a European city in South America.

Nightlife & Dinner Culture

Buenos Aires is well known for its crazy nightlife and late-night dining.

I went out to dinner one night–and at 12:30AM, the restaurant was packed (so loud that I could barely hear the person I was with). And that was a Wednesday night…most restaurants close at 2AM, at least on weekends, because people generally don’t dine before 10-11PM here. Restaurants will be completely empty if you go at 7:30PM (the most popular time to dine in the states). Most restaurants don’t open until 8PM, but that is considered a super early hour to eat (probably equivalent to eating at 5PM in the US…).

People (at least young people) tend to pregame (or have prévia) until 2-3AM and then go out to clubs. Which I gotta say, was a little bit difficult on my ancient, 30-year old body!

On one of my first weekends there, we got to the club (or boliche as they call them here) around 3AM and it was only around 4AM that the place got super packed and everyone started to arrive. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (except maybe Spain). Despite the fact that people party super hard (and late) here, the hard partying only really goes on during weekends (at least Thursday, Friday and Saturday). On Sundays-Wednesdays, everything is dead and streets are empty after around 1AM. So porteños (or people from Buenos Aires) save the real partying for the weekend.

On that note, what surprised me was the fact that the streets are pretty quiet, even on weekend nights. People tend to do their partying either at a friend’s place or at a bar or club–and not so much on the streets.

I was talking to a Spaniard who was visiting Buenos Aires and I asked him where the parties were better–here or Spain–and he told me Spain, because, in Spain, there is a party every single day (and Buenos Aires, people only party on certain days).

Yup, I can attest to that. I remember arriving in Madrid one night (had taken the train from Toulouse, France) and got to the hostel around 1AM, where I met my friend. We went out with other people from the hostel and tried to go to a bar with live music, but it was closed–until 3AM…so we went to a karaoke bar in the meantime and when we got to the other bar around 3AM, the place started to get packed. On a Sunday…at 4AM…Not sure I could handle that degree of party-crazy. Buenos Aires is already more than I can handle!

Safety

I feel very safe here. After living in Rio, where assaltos and robberies are commonplace in pretty much every single neighborhood, Buenos Aires feels very safe to me, especially neighborhoods like Palermo, Recoleta and Colegiales (where I lived). So safe that I would even walk home from my coworking space at night with headphones in my ear.

But like many other large cities, Buenos Aires can also be pretty dangerous, depending on what part of the city you’re in. Venture much outside of the aforementioned areas to places like to Microcentro, La Boca, and it can get pretty sketchy, fast…even in broad daylight.

Architecture & Design

Buenos Aires is a city of contrasts. From the European-inspired architecture of Recoleta, to the colorful, artistic buildings of Palermo, to dilapidated buildings in between, this city is a mix of many different styles. Each street corner is different from the next…

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Graffiti and street art are pretty much everywhere in Buenos Aires, thanks to the fact that there are almost zero restrictions on where artists can paint in the city (they only need the permission of property owners). The plethora of abandoned buildings throughout the city makes for a ton of blank canvases for artists to freely express themselves. On almost every street corner, there is an incredible mural to look at and try to interpret. Much of the art is politically-charged or depicts the history of Argentina, which was ruled by a dictatorship for many years.

Here’s another little slideshow to show you what I mean:

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Even though Buenos Aires is a concrete jungle, greenery and plants are omnipresent, which I loved. Even though you’re in a big city, it feels like you are surrounded by nature. From the tree-lined streets to the plants in restaurant window sills, there seems to be almost an obsession with plant-life in Buenos Aires. I’ll let these photos speak for themselves…

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The Weather

I have yet to experience winter in Buenos Aires, but I hear that it gets really cold (0-5 degrees Celsius), and because it stays humid year-round, the wet air makes it feel much colder than it actually is. One Argentinian told me that Buenos Aires winter felt much colder than winter in Stockholm (brrrr!), due to the humidity.

Autumn is really nice and temperate. Summers are supposed to be super hot and humid. And be prepared–when it rains here, it pours. 

La gente (the people) 

Get a little alcohol in them or put them in a party setting, and Argentinian men can be pretty aggressive and persistent (they are also, for the most part, incredibly attractive). My friend, Carolina, and I went to a club one Thursday night. I kid you not, three or four separate instances, different guys literally grabbed my face and tried to kiss me. And this, I’ve heard, is normal behavior…Granted we were probably the oldest people there…but still.

While generally, people are not quite as warm, relaxed and friendly as Brazilians (the bus drivers would never strike up a conversation with me, for instance, as would sometimes happen in Rio…), overall, I have found people to be quite friendly in Buenos Aires. All of Carolina’s friends and brother’s friends were very warm and hospitable. The same goes for my Airbnb hosts and their friends. They could not have been nicer.

Here are some more examples:

Once, I was looking a bit lost, trying to find my way, and an older woman stopped and asked me (in English — because I guess it was that obvious that I wasn’t Argentinian), “what are you looking for?” and then pointed me in the direction that I needed to go.

Another time, I was riding the bus and my card had run out of money, so I had to ask a passenger to pay for me with their card and I would give them cash (see above for more elaboration on that). And I asked a teenage boy and he immediately agreed and when I handed him the cash, he refused to accept it. Granted, it’s not a lot of money (like 50 cents), but I thought it was so nice that he actually flat-out refused the money when I tried to hand it to him.

One time, I was walking by myself (in broad daylight) to La Boca, a pretty sketchy neighborhood of Buenos Aires. I was trying to find the famous “El Caminito” street and ran into two police officers. They told me that it was dangerous for me to be walking by myself, because there was a game going on. They then offered to drive me there, in their police car. As soon as I got in, I got a bit worried – what if they kidnap me and are corrupt or something happens?! But they dropped me off, safe and sound, to my final destination. But not before one of the police officers asked for my Instagram…hahah. Only in South America does stuff like this happen…

Later that afternoon I went to get some empanadas in a restaurant in La Boca. After I paid the bill, I said good bye “Ciao, gracias” and the man behind the counter said “Ciao linda” (bye beautiful). Can you ever imagine a service employee/waiter saying that to a customer in the U.S.?? He would probably get sued for sexual harassment.

Yet another instance: while getting out of a taxi one night, the friendly driver told me to be careful in Centro of Buenos Aires–that is was dangerous. A small little tip, but I thought it was sweet of him to warn me like that.

And here’s my last example of the buena gente I met in Buenos Aires: I was desperate for someone from the U.S. to bring me over some oils that are pretty much impossible to find in Argentina. One man (who actually turned out to be an American living in Bs As) offered. He ended up bringing an entire suitcase of things over from the U.S. for me a few other people–all completely free of charge with zero intentions. Side note: most people make a business out of muling. But when I offered to pay him something, he refused and simplly said, “Just pay it forward the next time.”

Everything feels a little old-school

Get used to hearing “sólo effectivo” (only cash) in Buenos Aires. While nicer restaurants generally accept credit cards, they don’t accept all credit cards (sometimes only debit cards). And most places only accept effectivo or cash. It’s pretty much impossible to get by on just credit cards in Argentina, and I found myself having to make frequent trips to the ATM there. Even doctor offices only take cash, for the most part.

Elevators are all old (the kind where you have to manually close a door after entering).

And there are many old, beaten-up cars on the streets…

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Crazy nightlife and late-night dining. Delicious wine and steak. Fernet and mate. Tango. Neoclassical architecture and edgy street art.

My verdict? Buenos Aires is a definite must-see.

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