In October I returned from my third trip to Buenos Aires in the last year. This time it was for four short days with my friend Jesse who was visiting from Wisconsin, but other times it’s been for business. There’s so much going on in Buenos Aires that I didn’t feel like it was worth writing a travelogue until I’d had a chance to explore a big portion of the city. What follows is a composite of my three trips to Buenos Aires over the past year.
Buenos Aires is my favorite city in South America and up there with my favorite cities in the world. Although Buenos Aires proper is only 4m, it’s really a huge city of 12m along Mar de La Plata, where the River Plata empties into the sea. Most people in the US assume that since Chile and Argentina share such a long border and are in South America that they have a lot in common. But they’re really different: the accents, clothes, personalities and culture. In reality the two things they have in common are Spanish and a love of asados.
Buenos Aires is a city of amazing food, good looking people, beautiful architecture, wine, beef, culture, nightlife and fashion. It’s the Paris of South America, but with a South American edgy flair. People are generally educated, thanks to good public education and free universities, and love to socialize. Economically, it’s the Italy of South America: fiscal problems, a left wing government that’s nationalized industries and imposed currency controls to try to dedollarize the economy, which has led to rampant inflation and a black market exchange rate. When I first traveled to Buenos Aires in November 2011, the market rate was 4.2 pesos to a dollar and 4.5 to a dollar on the street. One year later it was 4.5:1 officially and 7.5:1 on the street.
People like their leisure time. There’s huge public and private sector unions with massive clout and lots of strikes. While I’ve been in Buenos Aires there have been strikes by truckers, airport baggage handlers and garbage collectors. Theres tons of red tape and bureaucracy and its no coincidence that Spanish speaking LatAm’s biggest entrepreneurial successes have come from Argentina: you learn from a young age how to be entrepreneurial and get things done by bending and breaking the rules. As it stands now, I wouldn’t do business in Argentina, but it is my favorite place to visit.
Argentina has the best food of anywhere I’ve been in Latin America and quite possibly the world. While I’ve had my best meal in Latin America in Mendoza, some of the next best have been in Buenos Aires. And it’s not just at the top end. Buenos Aires is a city where people love and appreciate food. You can walk into just about any little cafe, bakery or restaurant and expect a good meal.
Buenos Aires is know for two things: steak and Italian food, but it’s much more than that. But first, lets start with the steak. Argentina has some of the best beef in the world, most of which is produced by cows that eat grass, walking around on ranches in La Pampa, Argentina’s livestock belt. The most popular cut is the Bife Chorizo, which is certainly not any kind of sausage. It’s most closely related to a sirloin or NY Strip steak in the US. It’s my favorite. They’re also famous for their Malbec, which mostly comes from Mendoza in the north.
We went to La Cabrera, a touristy steak place in Palermo, at about 1030 for dinner. It’s expensive for Argentina, but it was worth it. The 600 gram steak, paired with a full bodied Malbec, was incredible. They gave us free drinks at the end of the meal because they didn’t have a dessert drink I asked about. Buenos Aires has some of the best restaurant service in the world because waiters were a profession up until recently. There’s still guys who have been waiting tables for decades who know everything there is to know about food, wine and service. It’s such a contrast to Chile and many restaurants in the US.
After we finished eating at 1230, we headed out to have a drink. We found a bar filled with interesting people, cheap drinks and interesting decor. After a few Quilmes it was 3am and we decided to go actually go out. We found a club with a line and walked it. Like in Chile people eat and go out late, but Argentina is even later. The place was just getting started. We closed the place at 630 and found our way back to the apartment we rented on Airbnb
Argentina has some of, if not the best, gelato in the world and we couldn’t resist grabbing a scoop for breakfast as we walked from Palermo to Recoleta to check out the cemetery where Buenos Aires’ elite are buried. It’s a labyrinth of extremely decorated mausoleums right in the middle of the city. Its amazing to see how much people spent on a cemetery that occupies prime land! After the cemetery, we stopped for a quick sandwich at La Biela under the shade of one of the more interesting trees I’ve ever seen.
After a quick bite, we wandered around Recoleta, taking in the embassies, old mansions and high end shops on our way down toward Av 9 de Julio, the world’s wides boulevard at 14 lanes. We walked down toward the obelisk, teatro colon and finally casa rosada, the presidential palace. The city just oozes history and architectural brilliance. Buenos Aires was on par with London at one point in the 1800s and they used the wealth to build incredible buildings and one of the oldest subways in the world. Unlike London, Buenos Aires hasn’t done much to update the metro, which we took back for the night. We had dinner at Broccolino, an Italian place with incredible lamb ravioli.
The next day, we took the Subte (subway), down toward La Boca, the area of the city known for the colored houses and of course the soccer team. The walk from the metro station took us through a few rougher areas, but it was great to see the difference in parts of the city. The entire area is dominated by the imposing La Bombonera, where Boca play their matches. When finally we got to the port, it was super touristy with guys trying to steer us into their bars. We left after some beers and empanadas.
We headed back up toward San Telmo and since it was Sunday we wandered across the famous street market where you’ll find just about everything for sale. We had a late lunch at a small Italian restaurant and walked around the old cobblestone streets. As it got darker and the traffic went away, you could almost feel yourself going back in time. We stopped into a small dive bar full of immigrants from eastern Europe for a cheap drink and hung out for awhile taking in the scene, then headed back up toward Palermo to meet some friends.
Our friends decided they wanted to go out in Puerto Madero, the newly developed area of town along the river, which had sat vacant and underdeveloped for decades. Now its revitalized with glitzy clubs, top restaurants and interesting people. It’s expensive compared to the rest of the city, but we had a good time. It wasn’t really my favorite place because it just doesn’t feel much different from any other big city in the world, maybe because its so new, but my friends and the many other tourists who were there loved it.
The next day we decided to walk to el Ateno, an old theater that’s been converted into a bookstore. The inside is beautifully converted and it was packed with tourists and locals alike. We stopped for another ice cream and took it all in. We took a taxi back to Palermo and decided to do some shopping. Palermo has many boutiques and you can watch as Argentines and tourists alike shop for fashionable clothes. Although the sticker prices are high, typically $75-$150 for a button down shirt, if you’re exchanging dollars that you brought with you, you can save up to 60%. One store owner heard me speaking in my accented Spanish and asked if I had dollars to spend and quoted me a 50% discount. After our shopping, it was off to the airport. Luckily we’d booked for Aeroparque, which is in the city, instead of Ezezia, which is a $40, hour long drive outside of the city.
There’s so many more amazing places I missed in this post that you’ll have to discover for yourself. Buenos Aires is an incredible city that should be on your list of places to visit if you have the chance. And right now it’s a great value and likely will keep getting better as their economy continues to have problems. I can’t wait to go back again.