It’s been almost three months since we left the US to begin this trip. In that time we’ve spent time in various parts of South America, but the bulk of our time has been spent in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
There’s a lot to love about this city, but it has its quirks too; and Argentina is a far more dysfunctional country than the US. So without further ado, here are the five things I love most about Buenos Aires and the five things I hate the most about Buenos Aires. Keep in mind, this list is in no particular order.
Things I Love
1) The food
Steak, ice cream, dulce de leche, empanadas- amazing.
Argentina is tied with its neighbor Uruguay for being the highest consumers of beef per capita. Parrillas are as much a part of Argentine culture as BBQ is part of Texan culture. The benefit of this is that the selection of beef is incredible, and we’ve had some amazing finds here. We’ve even found beef shawarma here (typically lamb/chicken/turkey), and it’s far better than any of the other variants.
The combination of Argentine cattle culture with the influence of the heavy Italian immigration to Argentina has led to what I (and others) consider the best ice cream in the world. Yes, I’ve tried plenty of gelato in Italy, but I’m still of the opinion that Argentine ice cream is superior. If you walk into an average Argentine ice cream shop you’ll be met with a difficult challenge. It’s tough to choose between something like nine different varieties of chocolate, nine different varieties of dulce de leche, every fruit flavor imaginable, and more. As long as you’re not going to the cheapo mass-market shops, every option will be truly excellent.
It’s shocking to me that we don’t have more dulce de leche in the US… Caramel is a garbage stand-in, in my opinion. It’s pretty obvious why once you consider the process of preparing it: caramel is produced by mixing water and sugar and applying heat, dulce de leche is produced by mixing milk and sugar and applying heat. It’s better in every possible way, and it goes on everything. I’m certain if someone in the US realized that high quality dulce de leche pairs beautifully with chocolate and peanut butter and began to create desserts using that combination, they’d be very wealthy.
Empanadas are tough to describe if you’re not familiar with them; they’re something kind of in between a pot pie and a calzone. They’re basically the perfect to-go food, fully encapsulated, and filled with either meat, or chicken, or cheese and vegetables, etc. You could easily survive on an assortment of empanadas, and you would enjoy doing so. This is another food we don’t really have in the US (and when we do, it’s usually subpar and overpriced). Empanadas are the ultimate in fast food.
2) The architecture
I’m no architect, so it’s hard for me to provide great insight here, but it’s nuts and like no other city on Earth. Most other countries have a unifying aesthetic, but Buenos Aires was a free-for-all in the 1800s and early 1900s. You want Spanish style architecture? Check. British style? Yep. Italian? Yes. French? Absolutely. Modern? Indeed.
Architects would come here to build their dreams without pesky governments telling them they had to match some aesthetic style of the city, so you end up with wildly contrasting buildings here. Also, the ultra-wealthy of the early 1900s were in love with the French and Italian palaces of centuries long past, so they decided to build themselves modern-day palaces in those styles. Imagine what you’d expect to be a 17th century Italian palace but built in 1920 and in the middle of a dense city surrounded by high rises. Buenos Aires is fascinating.
3) The subway
Despite locals complaining that many of the insane subsidies provided by the previous government have been removed or reduces, the subway is still absurdly cheap. The most expensive rides are $19 ARS (about $0.40 USD). Travelling by subway is quick, effective, clean, and basically free.
My only complaint is that there’s no end to the buskers and peddlers on the trains. I get that they need to earn a living; but I really don’t enjoy pulling cash out in a crowded subway, and their asking for money makes the experience mildly uncomfortable.
Aside from that, you can get pretty much anywhere in the city with the subway, and it’s a breeze.
4) The hours
Things here are open LATE. You went to see a movie and want to get dinner at 11 PM? Go for it. Craving a midnight ice cream? That’s available. Want to go for a drink at 1 AM? Sure, why not.
I did think about putting The hours in my Things I Hate section as well, but I’ve decided I like them more than I dislike them. The bit I dislike is that most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8 PM (and expect restaurants to be empty until at least 9 PM, most Argentines go to dinner between 9:30 PM and 10:30 PM). This means that if you skipped lunch, your options for food between 5 PM and 8 PM are limited to pastries and basic sandwiches.
Still though, that’s far better than having a city where you can’t find food after 9 PM.
5) The parks
You’d expect a crowded, dense city like Buenos Aires to just be a concrete jungle, but there’s a surprising amount of greenery. During the development of the city, conscious efforts were clearly made to keep large and small parks commonplace throughout the city, and it helps break everything up. Also, it’s nice to have places to go walking/running that aren’t surrounded by high rises.
Things I Hate
1) The lack of options
One thing I definitely took for granted back home was the availability of goods. Of course I mean things like Amazon Prime, but in this case I’m referring to far more basic items.
I’ll provide a few examples, starting with brown sugar. I’ve been to various big box supermarkets in Buenos Aires (one of them was in an upscale area and was as large as a Walmart!). When I went to the section that should contain sugar (typically in either the baking section or the tea/coffee section), I struggled to find any sugar at all. About 85% of the section was alternative sweeteners in various formats; sucralose, aspartame, stevia, all in granulated forms, liquid forms, etc. The very bottom shelf had a few bags of refined white sugar; this was the only sugar in the entire supermarket. Items such as light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, molasses, turbinado sugar, demerara sugar, muscovado sugar, black sugar, etc., were simply unavailable. I was told items such as these could likely be found in specialty health food stores, but those are usually small, have a limited selection, and can have odd hours. Why have a big box store with such a limited selection of staple goods?
The next example is oil. I wanted to buy some sesame oil. It’s an oil that can be found in pretty much any American supermarket. In fact, oils that you’re likely to find in almost any American supermarket in the country include: canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil, olive oil, peanut oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and sesame oil. At any given Argentine supermarket, you will find exactly three varieties of oil: corn oil, safflower oil, and olive oil. I was told to either go to a specialty health food store, or an Asian market in Chinatown if I wanted a “rare item” like sesame oil.
I have plenty more examples, but I’ll end with this one: I wanted to buy a cast iron skillet. Normally this would be simple; walk into any Target or Walmart, walk out with a cast iron. In Buenos Aires it took me two days and ten stores to find one. The short version is that no regular home/kitchen supply stores had any. I was sent to the restaurant supply district of the city, which is multiple blocks full of restaurant supply stores. I had to go to five different stores in the district before finding an establishment that had a single cast iron skillet - which was the only one in the store! Funnily enough, multiple store proprietors suggested “we don’t have one, but [store we’d just been to] probably will”. I was floored by how difficult it was to find an item I believed to be commonplace. I asked a few people why they were so hard to find, and I got some convoluted answers about import laws and iron from Bolivia. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
In any case, it’d be really nice to be able to find basic things without having to run around the city searching for them. Amazon Prime would be a godsend, though assuming the delivery carrier wouldn’t steal your package, it’d last about one second on a doorstep here before someone took it.
Some people will mention MercadoLibre as an Amazon alternative… it most certainly is not. It’s basically just an eBay clone. Plus, in order to get your packages, you have to pick them up at the post office. Considering a friend sent us a letter from the US over two months ago and we have yet to receive it, I wouldn’t want to rely on the Argentine postal service.
Bonus Item: The pizza.
Pizza- This was under The food section under things I love, but it was pointed out this is most certainly not a love of mine. If you’re Argentine, you love Argentine pizza. If you’re not, it’s not particularly appealing. Sorry Argentina, but I’ll take a NY slice or a Neapolitan pizza over the entire wheel of cheese you’ve melted over a thick pie crust and called a pizza. I’ve been told the best pizzas here are incredible thin pizzas on the grill, and while they’re fine flatbreads, they still suffer the over-cheesed effect.
Thankfully, while you can find excellent Neapolitan style pizza in Buenos Aires, American varieties are pretty much nonexistent unfortunately. Hence this being a bonus item under The lack of options section. I miss great American style pizza.
2) Paying for things
I can’t remember the last time I had to carry cash in the US. Either I’m paying with card, or using NFC on my phone to pay. I’ve had trips to Trader Joe’s that have lasted under one minute and included a purchase, and I’m not exaggerating. The average trip to the supermarket here takes somewhere between 30-90 minutes. Even at the largest markets with over 30 cashiers, the process is excruciating for no good reason. People buy large quantities of items which the cashiers seem to be in no hurry to process and then they often get into discussions about “How many quotas would you like to pay?” which devolves into extended math conversations. For the uninitiated, many people here have the option to split purchases up into multiple interest-free payments, so even small purchases like a few things at a grocery store can be split up into “six easy payments!”
Once you arrive at the cashier, it’s a whole other issue. If you take out your credit card, the customers behind you audibly groan, as it’s a much longer process than paying with cash. The same is true if you pull out cash at a crowded grocery store back in the US, so basically just inverted. The reason is because if you have a chip-based credit card (who doesn’t?!) they need the ‘special’ card reader with the chip option. At the grocery store with thirty cashiers, they sent the question down the line about three or four cashiers deep to either side asking who had the chip reader. Once the chip reader had been found, there was still an incredibly long processing time when using it. Then you have to wait for a receipt printout, which you sign and annotate with your DNI (some sort of national ID) which I don’t possess. I’ve alternated between using my CA Driver’s License number and my US Passport number, though it really doesn’t matter since US credit cards have no such check anyways.
Thankfully at the supermarkets there are self checkout lanes, and they even have chip readers! Unfortunately, it seems like literally none of them have the chip readers set up to work, since every time I’ve tried to use one I’ve been redirected to the regular line. Basically the only people who can use self checkout are those with an Argentine debit card that doesn’t use a chip. Cool.
This means that it’s often more convenient to just pay cash, which means having a steady supply of cash on you. However, this leads me to the next point which is that credit cards are accepted maybe 40-50% of time, and about half of that time they charge you significantly more for using one (or as they put it, there’s a substantial discount if you pay cash).
However, massive inflation has made the Argentine peso worth about 1⁄45 of a US dollar. This means that you need a lot of cash to pay for stuff. If you want to invite your family to a steakhouse there’s a good chance they won’t accept card, and you’d better hope you have a giant wad of cash to pay. However, be careful with that giant wad of cash you’re walking around with, as muggings are commonplace in Buenos Aires!
Finally, I had to go to the dentist to replace an onlay that had broken. The price wasn’t outrageous, about $650 USD, which was $30,000 ARS. However, the dentist didn’t accept credit card, and only accepted Argentine debit cards. Apparently this is typical of professionals in Argentina; doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc don’t accept credit cards. This meant that I was stuck paying cash.
However, getting cash here is it’s own stupid nightmare. The ATMs limit you to no more than $4000 ARS per transaction (around $90 USD). Each transaction comes at an ATM fee cost of $250-$450 ARS ($5-$10 USD). You’re limited to no more than three transactions daily. This meant that I was only about to pull out $12,000 ARS (about $260 USD) daily, at a cost of $750-$1350 ARS ($15-$30 USD)!!! In order to get the 30,000 pesos I needed to pay the dentist, I had to go to the ATM, do three withdrawal transactions costing me $30 USD, and repeat that process for three days in total. This process culminated in this:
This was the stack of 30,000 pesos I had to take to the dentist in order to pay for a minor bit of work. I had to take this through a city where there are high rates of robbery and thievery. The amount of time, effort, and risk that went into something as basic as paying the dentist was absurd.
Thankfully one aspect I didn’t have to worry about were those ATM fees. My bank back home covers any and all ATM fees and refunds them, so they ate the cost of those multiple transactions. Still, the whole process sucked.
3) The insecurity
I haven’t personally had any issues with insecurity, but I’ve had family members mugged here in Buenos Aires, and many have had things stolen more discreetly. There’s a tension that exists here that doesn’t back in San Diego, where people here tell you to be careful, not do certain things at certain times, avoid certain areas, etc.
I don’t have much to cite other than my own unease walking through otherwise upscale neighborhoods at night at times where there is minimal foot traffic. It definitely changes our habits, as we limit how much time we spend out at night, and where we opt to go. Even during the daytime you have to be careful about wandering into bad parts of the city. You definitely feel the sense of danger, and you have to stay very alert at all times.
I’m thankful I haven’t run into any trouble, but I miss being able to walk around in the evenings without feeling like I need to keep checking over my shoulder or being careful not to expose my pockets.
4) The ‘90%’ rule
Once you see this, you can’t unsee it.
Unfortunately, this is a common approach to doing things in Argentina. You can be in a brand new building with top end appliances and beautifully decorated, and yet there will be bits of paint splashed onto wallpaper, pipes running into walls will likely be partially exposed. Everything feels like it was 90% completed before someone went “meh, good enough” and stopped working on it. The lack of attention to detail in that sense is astounding because of how typical it is, and once you’ve noticed it, you see it in absolutely everything. Sidewalks that have just been replaced have obvious defects, roads have been partially repaired, things will have been made to look good enough at a casual glance, but let your gaze linger a moment and you’ll notice where corners were cut and the finer details have gone unresolved.
It’s always upsetting to see places that are clearly intended to be of the highest caliber and are beautifully designed, only for them to be so sloppily implemented. In the US there are plenty of complaints about crappy contractors, but at least there are clearly enough of the good ones that you don’t see such sloppiness in all aspects of life.
5) The dysfunction
This is a tough one to delve into without writing a thesis on the political systems and history of Argentina. With that said, I’ll be focusing more on how it’s affected us directly.
I’ll begin with the taxi system and the current state of Uber in the country. When Uber first launched here, cab drivers rioted, they beat up Uber drivers and trashed their cars. This behavior has reduced, but it has not stopped. Uber itself exists in a state of legal limbo; up until recently it was considered illegal in Buenos Aires (though it continued to operate in defiance of that). As a result, they have an oddly implemented Uber system.
When you set up an Uber account in Argentina you have the choice to add a credit/debit card, or to pay in cash. It seemed odd at first that an option to pay cash for an Uber exists since avoiding cash is part of the reason to choose Uber in the first place. However, due to Uber’s questionable legal status, Argentina directed all banks to prevent Uber from opening bank accounts in the country, and all credit/debit card processors to refuse to process Uber transactions.
This means that when you pay for an Uber ride using any sort of card, Uber has no way to pass that money along to the driver. The balance will just sit in the driver’s Uber account with no way of being withdrawn. The flipside of this is that when a driver takes payment in cash, Uber has no way to claim that money from the driver. This means that if you’re paying with credit/debit, Uber keeps 100% of the money, and if you’re paying with cash, the driver keeps 100% of the money.
Recently there was a court ruling that presumably legitimized Uber (or at least semi-legalized it) in order to allow them to operate financially within the country, but so far no changes have occurred in this sense.
Also, since I have an American Uber account, there’s no cash option for me, meaning that pretty much every Uber ride I take is a free ride from the perspective of the driver since they have no way to access the money I’ve paid. As such, I’ve begun to limit how frequently I take Ubers within the country.
Unfortunately, part of the reason Uber has become so popular here despite all that nonsense is because taxis here can be very problematic. Oftentimes a medallion-holder has rented out his taxi to someone completely random, hailing a taxi on the street could be legitimate or not, and you always run the risk of getting taken for a long ride in order for them to collect a larger fare. This unpleasantness created optimal conditions for Uber to start offering a more compelling option in the first place.
The dysfunction in the country extends far beyond Uber, however. Frequently the downtown parts of the city are choked off by political protests. Lately, union bosses that support the populist opposition (which was in power for decades until the last election) have been calling for strikes to protest the current government, which isn’t as protectionist as the unions would like.
These general strikes have been called for with little warning, and have become far more frequent leading up to the elections. As a result of one of these last minute strikes, we had flights cancelled two days before our trip to Bariloche. The unions decided to shut down the airports, which meant all flights were cancelled, with no availability for multiple days on either side. This meant we had to drastically alter our travel plans, and I’m STILL in the process of recouping associated costs with our travel insurance company a few months later.
This is something that simply would not have happened in the US. People here just throw up their hands in response to the dysfunction and say “Well, stuff happens. That’s just how things are here.” That’s not an acceptable answer.
Bonus! - The Falklands
Argentina is weirdly obsessed with the Falkland Islands (Malvinas if you’re Argentine and therefore obsessed). Everywhere you look there are signs posted that say “Los Malvinas son Argentinas!” (The Falklands are Argentine). You’ll see that slogan on shirts, painted on the side of trucks, and some people even have tattoos of the Falklands.
If you ask the average person about them they’re likely to get very upset if you just refer to them as “the Falklands” and will quickly ‘correct’ you. If you ask them why they care so much, they’ll respond “because they belong to us”. This attitude exists across the entire political spectrum in Argentina. I’ve never seen such an effective tool of propaganda before.
To provide a bit of context, when the military dictatorship in the ‘80s was on the verge of collapse due to a failing economy and the fact that they ‘disappeared’ (killed) up to 30,000 Argentine civilians, they decided to try to “take back” the Falklands from the British. After the islands were taken, the government’s popularity went through the roof. To realize how insane that is, think about it this way: people were willing to forgive MASS MURDER and state terrorism just because they took over some useless islands in the middle of the Atlantic ocean that have no value whatsoever!
I find the obsession especially baffling once you read the history of the islands: they’ve been under British control for the past ~200 years, every single person who lives on the islands prefers to be British (and is British), the only time Argentina ever had control of the islands was for a couple months in the ‘80s when they invaded. The closest claim they otherwise have is that some loose confederation in the area had control of the islands for a year in the early 1800s. However, the United States also had control of the islands for a year in the early 1800s, so if anything, OUR claim is equally valid to Argentina’s.
Given that the islands have pretty much never been Argentine, the people of the islands don’t want to be Argentine, the islands have no particular economic or strategic value, I simply do not comprehend the Argentine obsession and fervor over the Falklands. I find the it so illogical and absurd that despite having no opinion prior to arriving here, I’m now firmly of the belief that the British should never turn it over to Argentina out of pure spite. If anything, the Brits should give control of the islands to another unrelated country like Nepal just to stick it to Argentina.