Buenos Aires

As my time in Buenos Aires draws to an end, I’ll share a few of the more suprising things I’ve learned about the city. Specifically, I’m talking about the relatively wealthy, built-up, upper-middle-class area where we’ve lived this week (Palermo), as well as the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. As of yet, I have almost no experience in the suburbs or poorer neighborhoods, nor anywhere else in the country. But, many people (such as American expats or reasonably well-to-do Argentinians) spend time almost exclusively in these areas.

First of all, these areas of B.A. bear almost no resemblance to any developing country that I’ve visited. Everybody I’ve spoken with says they are completely atypical of South America. A much better comparison is New York City or Paris, with a bit of a Mediterranean feel. B.A. doesn’t have the enormous skyscrapers downtown like NYC does, but outside of the downtown it seems nearly as built up. In comparison to NYC, B.A. has much larger stretches of uninterrupted safe, beautiful residential neighborhoods. One can walk for many miles without going near a bad neighborhood. (Again, I’m speaking only of the nicer quarters of the city.) And, unbelievably, the drivers are calm and law-abiding.

 Everybody says that Argentina has a low cost of living. It’s true. First off, the proper comparison is B.A. vs. NYC or Paris — not B.A. vs. rural America. Secondly, Argentina enforces an ‘official’ exchange rate of (currently) 5-to-1 $AR to $US. But, it is very easy to switch dollars on the black market at the ‘Blue Rate’, which is closer to 8-to-1. Or, you can send money over the internet and pick it up perfectly legally (I just did this today via Xoom.com) at about 7.2-to-1. It’s an absurd system, but in this case Argentina’s ridiculous currency system works out greatly to the advantage of people with US currency. (For example, long-term visitors tend to convert their savings from their home country’s currency to US dollars, and then to Argentinian pesos; this earns them 30-40% more than if they went directly from their home currency to pesos.)

Some examples of prices in B.A., tip and cover included:

  • Lunch (burger or nice salad + coffee or soda) at a pretty swank restaurant: $45AR ($6 US)
  • Same meal at a cheap restaurant: $30AR ($4 US)
  • World-class filet mignon, several tapas appetizers, and wine, at what would in the U.S. be considered a four-star restaurant: $200AR ($27US)
  • Short taxi ride (2 miles) $25 AR ($3.50 US)
  • Long taxi ride (6 miles) $40 AR ($5.50 US)

That said, food and transport are the two cheapest types of purchases in B.A.. Lodging seems to be relatively more (but nowhere near US prices). However, air travel, clothing, and electronics are at or above US prices.

A final big surprise to me was the demographics. I thought that Argentina would have similar demographics to Brazil or Mexico. Nothing could be further from the truth. 90% of Argentinians are of European ancestry. Of those, I believe that most are actually Italian (which might help to explain the ubiquitous pizza and pasta restaurants, as well as the absurd populist politics). As a blond male with a pale complexion who wears shorts, it’s still relatively clear that I’m a tourist, but no more so than in Spain or Italy.

In conclusion, I am loving Buenos Aires more and more each day. (It’s lucky I’m leaving tomorrow, or I may be stuck!) The prices, the people, the city, and the climate combine to make it incredibly pleasant and livable. However, when you see the number of raucous protests, and hear El Presidente Kirchner screaming rhythmic diatribes against the foreign imperialists, and when you see how nervously the Argentinians hoard foreign currency, you definitely get the feeling that Argentina is a bit of a ticking time bomb. Probably not a violent or immediate one, but I certainly wouldn’t want to put all of my eggs in this basket.