Timesaving tips from a Spring-time visitor
This is a big beautiful vibrant city. Buenos Aires walks a wobbling tightrope between a magnificent old world beauty and a raw edgy metropolis. Part of BA’s charm is that it’s not a city set up for tourists, and confidently so. (BA is like the hot guy in art class, just ambling along to his own beat tempting you to flock to that flame). Which is great as you really do feel like you are experiencing the real BA and not just the Darling Harbour version. All the research we had done before arriving was pretty out of date so it does help to have understand the practicalities so you can spend your time savouring the many flavours of this tasty city not just the air con of the local bank.
First things first...Money!
Researching our trip the universal consensus was to bring all the US dollars you might need and change into pesos there. This was recommended as you didn’t want to end up with a pile of pesos at the end of your trip that would be difficult to convert back into dollars. Advice was also to avoid using ATMs as they have high fees, low exchange rates and some had been reported to be dispensing counterfeit pesos.
Locals recommend avoiding changing money at the airport as the queues are long and the exchange rate poor. We brought enough pesos to get a taxi to the hotel and get us through the first few days. Changing money in BA is a pain in the BA. Only certain banks will change money for you if you are not a customer. After traipsing across the city and trying four different banks, we finally discovered only two banks that would change our (non-customers) money. Banco de la Ciudad and Banco Nacion.
BUT here’s a big time saving tip:
Don’t go to the smaller branches of these banks dotted across the city as you will have to wait along with all the locals doing their daily banking business and wait times can be up to 90 minutes. Ours at Banco de la Ciudad was a mere 60 minutes! Our recommendation would be to go to the main branch of the Banco Nacion, Sarmiento 101, Buenos Aires. It’s right next to the arresting and aptly named Casa Rosada.
The Banco Nacion is one gorgeous building too, a fabulous location-scout-worthy domed central space, ornately detailed - a turn of the century architectural delight. The ability to combine sightseeing with errands - a holiday bonus in my book. The bank has a dedicated set of counters for foreign exchange with non-existent wait times. The cherry on top is that Banco Nacion had a better exchange rate than Banco de la Ciudad. Which means more Malbec!
NOTE: When changing money at a bank you need to bring your passport. Guide books/blogs say that a photocopy will suffice, this is incorrect.
As mentioned, its a bit of palaver so it’s your call whether you have the time and/or be can be bothered hunting down a bank to change your money or just take a hit and get your hotel to change it for you where you will get about a 1-2% lower rate than a bank.
Lost in translation
Something I TOTALLY underestimated was how little English the locals spoke (silly suburban girl!) and how little Spanish I remembered from uni. Not only did I learn European Spanish which is different to Spanish spoken in Latin American, its much more challenging comprehending the language when out and about in the fast moving, fast talking daily life of BA. The stat is only 15-20% of locals speak English but I would put taxi drivers at 100% non-English speaking. (Hence your destination address on a slip of paper!)
Learn how to say and understand the basics:
Do you speak a little English?
Good morning etc
The bill, please
Do you have change?
Definitely know your numbers, but if all else fails try: “escribelo por favour” … can you write that down, please?
Learn or have access to a dictionary for the food. Restaurants rarely have an English version. Our most entertaining mis-order was a serve of entrails instead of the house entreé.
entraña vs entremés ... easily done, just not easily eaten.
Download a dictionary/translator onto your phone. Google Translate is a good free translator app in general, plus you can download an offline version for when you’re not on WiFi. However, the Spanish is European not the Latin American Spanish spoken in BA. LP Fast Talk app from Lonely Planet, has a Latin American Spanish phrasebook available so $4.49 will have you sounding like a local on no time. Very handy.
Out and about
We used a good old fashioned map, as we didn’t have access to Google maps without WiFi (you can’t download an offline map of BA yet). Another bonus of using a map is you don’t want to be pulling out your iPhone when getting about as you not only scream tourist - you’re flaunting your highly prized iPhone ripe for pick pocking or snatching out of your hand.
Arriving: we went to the blue Taxi Ezeiza booth at the airport as advised by Lonely Planet. The taxi booth gave us a set rate of AR 580 which we thought we might be getting ripped off as it was double what LP guide said but after talking to our hotel and locals that’s the roughly the airport fare (520-580 pesos). As an aside, listen carefully to the lady in the booth, as she passed us over to guy who lead us to our taxi we followed thinking he was our drive. He wasn’t, he was a “porter” who then demanded a tip for his directions. So say no thanks to the “help” at the booth.
When in BA, only get into “Radio Taxis”. These are the official City of BA ones, that start the fare correctly at (20.20 pesos) and they have their official drivers ID on display. The word from locals is that the taxis without the words Radio Taxi on it - are varying forms of dodgy.
Your hotel can call a taxi and that will add up 20 pesos on top of your fare. Or just hailing one, look out for the Radio Taxi sign on top off the taxi. There are also official Radio Taxis that don’t have that sign on top - they may just write it on the side doors.
Taxis availability is signaled by the illuminated “LIBRE” sign in the top right hand side of the front window. It’s an absolute bonus if your taxi has seat belts and air conditioning is a luxury you should not be expecting.
Unless you are fluent in Spanish – write the address of your destination on a slip of paper for the driver to read. Importantly, include the nearest cross street, this saves a lot of misunderstanding as some street names appear multiple times across this sprawling city. There is also a one way street system in BA so its helpful for the cabbie to know which way to traverse.
Taxis are pretty cost effective, maximum we paid for a taxi was 150 pesos (approx. $15) and that was all the way across town in peak hour. Taxis don’t accept US dollars. You don’t tip taxi drivers but round it up to the nearest small note.
Try to have smaller notes in your wallet rather than just bigger notes (100peso) as locals intel is that some taxi drivers will take your 100 peso note, pretend to be looking for change, switch it for a counterfeit note then hand what you think is your note back saying they don’t have change.
After all this you'll need coffee
The best coffee you will get in Buenos Aires or according to our taxi driver - “todos Argentina” (entire Argentina) is at Coffee Town. Located inside the old covered market in San Telmo. You can sit and take in the bustling old working market bursting with local characters, charm and camera totting visitors. Add an Empanada Calabrese to recharge the batteries before discovering more visual treats outside.
As an aside, a cappuccino is not a cappuccino as Sydney-siders know it, it’s a tall, milky weak thing. Try a cafe con leche (coffee with milk) instead.
Angie McCarthyI’m a graphic designer from Sydney. I work for myself in branding design helping big corporates with identity issues and on the side I create “lovely stuff you just have to have” for my screen printing website materialistic.com.au I have an unhealthy amount of Dinosaur Design bangles, vibrant colour puts a spring in my step and I need to wean myself off Instagram before I ruin my eyesight (and relationship).