Buenos Aires: What You Should Know Before You Go

Tango in the Street

Buenos Aires teems with life at all hours of the day and night, and the history and prior opulence are evident immediately. But there are downsides to your Buenos Arian adventure that the unsuspecting tourist needs to know before taking a trip to the Paris of South America. Buenos Aires is currently on the top of the list for most world travelers mainly due to the devaluation of the Argentine peso. An American traveling in Argentina will find the American dollar will go a very long way, and at a point in time when the dollar isn't even going very far at home. There are articles in nearly every travel publication touting Argentina and Buenos Aires in particular, selling the idea of learning the tango and enjoying the excellent Argentine beef. But what I haven't yet seen but think is important for tourists to know, is that there are definite downsides to a visit to Buenos Aires, especially if you approach the trip as you would a visit to most international cities because it is very different than say, Rome, from a tourist point of view. Armed with proper knowledge beforehand however, you can arrange your trip in a slightly different way than you had originally planned and make the most of your time in Buenos Aires.

The Streets of Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires was one of the richest cities in the world at one time, and European immigrants flocked there during World War II because Argentina was one of the few countries to maintain neutrality. Italian, Spanish, French and German ancestries add a flair of old world European style to this rustic Indian country. That is the beauty of Argentina. Buenos Aires has a decidedly European flair due to its largely European immigrant-inhabitants, but still, this city is much more grit than polish and unfortunately, the portenos (locals) have not quite figured out a way to make their city accessible to the tourists currently flocking to its ports. You may be disappointed to find pollution, crowded and dirty streets including trash lined sidewalks, and a lack of well thought out, tourist friendly sights. Although it is virtually the capital of the South American continent with a population larger than that of New York City, the city has yet to catch up with the worldwide interest that has brought droves of tourists in recent years. Frankly, it's not ready for the tourist inundation, and visitors are frequently disappointed with the city. The disappointment frequently stems from boredom because it is possible to see all of the most popular tourist sites in only one day.

Plaza de Mayo

First you will want to see the famed balcony of Casa Rosada where Eva Peron spoke to the masses, Plaza de Mayo, and La Catedral Metropolitana. All of these sights are located in the same square, and it will take less than two hours to see them all, including taking a 30 minute guided tour of Casa Rosada. Teatro Colon is a wonderful sight as well, but not a sight of great historical or artistic interest. The barrios of the city can be interesting in their differences, but they are certainly not required sightseeing and can be enjoyed as you dine at a restaurant or shop in a region.

These facts do not dampen my enthusiasm for the city. However, many tourists may be ill-prepared to have flown thousands of miles and have nothing but a handful of historic sights to see. There is history to be seen and experienced here, it just isn't as well-known or well-laid out and explained as you will find in New York or Paris for example. That's why after you have spent a day seeing the major sights, my recommendation is to enjoy the shopping, dining/nightlife, and to partake of the inexpensive services that Buenos Aires is currently offering. And with this bit of insider information you can have a spectacular time here.

Antiques Market

Shopping may be my favorite thing about this city. Right now I'm dreaming about a shoe shop called Mandarine in Palermo Viejo where I found handmade bronze pumps that garner compliments every time I wear them. Then there are the handmade soaps in the markets of Recoleta, and let's not forget the funky teal deconstructed jacket I bought for less than $50 from an out of the way shop that for the life of me I can't remember the name. No worries, next time I go back I plan to walk the streets again and go crazy buying up everything the first time I see it. Because Buenos Aires is like this, once you start wandering you may never find that shop again, or that restaurant. So enjoy it now and for goodness sake, take a card on your way out!

Local Crafts in the Market

There's something about the fashion in Buenos Aires that is very Parisian in a bohemian/punk sort of way. There are so many young, hip designers who can afford the cheap rents in areas like Palermo, and set up shop and sell (sometimes hand-made) clothing, shoes, bags, and jewelry that is so current, so cutting edge, that you know you will be ahead of the trends when you get home. The real beauty is that because the Argentine peso is so low, you can buy so much. Stick to Palermo for these types of funky shops, although you can even find cool stuff for decent prices at the malls. If you really want to go high end, you can find the Fendis and Guccis here, but you won't find the same savings. [See SHOPS below].

What you may hear most from young people who have come back from Buenos Aires is that the biggest draw and focus was the nightlife. This is a city that never sleeps and if you go here to visit, I suggest you don't sleep either. Even if you can only make it until 2 am, you'll see what I'm talking about. If you're getting in your cab at that time, you'll feel like you're leaving the party early. The streets will still be filled with people, most of the restaurants and bars will still be open, and it just won't seem late. I've been drinking after dinner at a restaurant in this city to suddenly discover that it's 5 am. Several bottles of wine were involved, but no matter, that would never happen to me in Denver because we would have been asked to leave the restaurant several hours earlier so that they could close. In Buenos Aires, when we left the restaurant was still half-full even though the sun was coming up. [See RESTAURANTS/NIGHTLIFE below].

One very touristy thing to do is to go to a tango show, and if you truly want to do this, then by all means do so. But many of these shows are really overpriced ($100 and up) and even though they usually include dinner, it's usually not a bargain by Argentine standards. There are tanquerias, the most famous of which is La Confiteria Ideal, that allow regular people to come and dance with partners of their choice. The best part is watching the others dance because this is where you'll see the real show. Some of the characters in these places will stick with you for the rest of your life. For instance the 80 year old man in plaid pants belted up to his chest that came in with his 60 year old "arm candy" in a tight red dress and jet black wig. They cut a rug across La Confiteria Ideal that was unmatched by any professional I saw in shows, on the street, or anywhere. I was mesmerized not by their superb ability they actually were pretty good but by their showmanship. And it felt real, which is something I never got in the fancy shows.

La Confiteria Ideal

So if you are going to Buenos Aires, be prepared to forge your own path. Shopping, eating and going out at night should be the basis of your agenda when planning a trip here. There's just one more thing that I can't fail to mention and that (especially if you are a woman) you can't fail to miss: the cheap services.

Hairdresser

Once again, the poor status of the Argentine peso is to thank. The economy here is so bad for the locals that they are willing to do the more mundane tasks for next to nothing. I realized this my first time in Buenos Aires when I arrived after my long overnight flight exhausted and aching. I was in desperate need of some pampering and so I went straight to a spa. What a shock I had to find out that an hour long massage would cost only $15, a bikini wax $10, a manicure and pedicure $12 total. You can even get your hair washed, dried and styled and pay less than $10 for it. Now, please don't expect a glass of wine and aromatherapy at this price, you are truly getting just the service. But I did it all, and did everything I could the entire time I was there, and I recommend you do the same. The best thing to do is look for signs for these services as you walk around town, walk in and make an appointment, and most of the time they will take care of you on the spot. [See SERVICE NAMES IN SPANISH below].

Then I realized that this service bonanza extended to other types of services as well. Because one of my trips to Buenos Aires was a month long stay in an apartment, I needed housecleaners and laundering services as well. Well maybe I didn't need them, but after I heard the prices I just couldn't deny myself. I was shocked to find that the launderers would come to my house to pick up my items, wash, dry and fold them in the same day and then hand deliver them back to me at the cost of about $3 a load. And the cleaners came once a week and cleaned the apartment top to bottom for $5. I actually felt guilty paying so little and quite often bumped up the price, but of course this was unnecessary. They were happy to have the work. That's why I say, while you are in Buenos Aires, live like a king. Have a massage and get your hair done every day, and get a manicure/pedicure at least once a week. And don't be afraid to send out laundry, or have cleaners come to your apartment everyday if you want. It's well worth it and it helps the local economy too.

In order to get around to all of your appointments, shops and restaurants you will need to take taxis in this huge city. There is a great metro system (el subte) but for the small price difference you can't beat the convenience of a taxi. Taxis are always easy to find, and cheap, but you will rarely find a driver that speaks much English. Brush up on at least a few words of Spanish and you may find it easier to get your point across. The good news is you will rarely find an impatient or surly Argentinean, taxi drivers included. But you may end up the one frustrated and antsy on your vacation.

Gaucho Guide in Mendoza

By all means visit Buenos Aires, and take an extended trip if you can. The flight will probably be the most expensive part of the visit no matter how long you stay. You can take day trips to various interesting places around Buenos Aires, although the main modes of transportation are planes and boats, and neither is especially inexpensive or convenient. [See DAYTRIPS below].

But if you plan to travel to Buenos Aires and spend more than a day or two in the city, you should know that you will either need to study your South American history before you go, or be prepared to immerse yourself in days of walking and shopping and nights (and mornings) of eating, drinking and dancing. Buenos Aires is different than many of the major international cities that attract tourism not many tourists know very much about the history of the country, let alone the city. And because Buenos Aires is just now beginning to recover from its past economic devastation, and to really attract strong tourism, it is unprepared to explain it all to you. So you will need to treat this trip differently than a trip to Prague, and this distinction is important for those of you hoping to be future tourists of Buenos Aires. Because if you visit here with a guidebook in hand hoping it will serve as your compass for more than a day of travel, you may well leave disappointed.

DAY TRIPS:

Mendoza (by plane or overnight bus). The highlights of this excursion would be renting a car and driving around the "little Napa Valley" to taste the local wines, especially the Malbec, which is fantastic. Also try taking a guided horseback ride into the Andes foothills. Contact: Kahuak Turismo Aventura, www.kahuak.com.ar

Vineyard in Mendoza Beneath the Andes

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay (by boat). An interesting insight into the neighboring country of Uruguay and an inexpensive day trip by boat from Buenos Aires. Contact: Buquebus, www.buquebus.com

Mar del Plata (by bus). The nearest Argentinean beach to Buenos Aires, it is overrun with Argentinean tourists in the summer. A few hours from Buenos Aires. Contact: A Local Travel Agent

Iguazu Falls (by bus or plane). A sight reminiscent of Niagara Falls, a pricey trip and a long distance from Buenos Aires, but a gorgeous piece of nature. Contact: A Local Travel Agent

*Day trips can be pricey so choose wisely. Argentina is huge and hard to get around and trains are not as accessible as they are in Europe. You will need to either take a plane or a bus to most out of these locations.


RESTAURANTS/NIGHTLIFE


La Morelia, Baez 260, Las Canitas, tel. 4772-0329 (amazing pizza)

Olsen, Gorriti 5870, Palermo Viejo, tel. 4776-7677 (cool scandinavian restaurant with vodkas from around the world)

Gran Bar Danzon, Libertad 1161, Barrio Norte, 4811-1108 (very cool late night wine bar)

La Confiteria Ideal, Suipacha 384, Centro, tel. 5265-8069 (old-school tanqueria)

Cluny, El Salvador 4618, Palermo Soho, 4831-7176 (relaxed and sophisticated dining)

SHOPS

Teal Deconstructed Jacket (and Bag from Elementos)

Elementos, El Salvador 4817, Palermo Soho, tel. 4832-6971 (leather accessories)

Mandarine, Honduras 4940, Palermo Viejo, tel. 4833-0094 (shoes, bags, belts)

Fortunata Allegria, Gurruchaga 1739, Palermo Viejo, tel. 4831-8197 (funky clothing)

SERVICE NAMES IN SPANISH

Lavanderia (Laundry)

Manos/Pies (Manicure/Pedicure)

Masajes (Massages)

Peluqueria (Hairstyling)

Depilacion (Waxing)

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