The first thing I would like to say about this trip is that it was awesome. Buenos Aires resembles Paris in a lot of really amazing ways (including an abundance of dogs, though BA does a much worse job cleaning up after them), and Iguazu Falls is really awe-inspiring; the several hundred (sic) waterfalls make Niagara look like a piker.
The second thing to note is that the currency situation is completely bizarre. I include this second because it unfortunately consumed a large part of our trip and our mental energy. The basic gist is that Argentina is experiencing hyperinflation, which would lead to a plummeting exchange rate with the US dollar if the market were allowed to do its thing. But the market is not allowed to do its thing; Argentina is under currency controls. The most important upshot of this for tourists is that there is a massive disconnect between the official exchange rate and the unofficial rate, the latter of which is called the “blue dollar”. The blue dollar even has a Twitter feed to track its current exchange rate; the blue rate is currently 11.3 pesos to the dollar. Contrast this with the official exchange rate, currently 7.89 to 1. If you withdraw cash from an ATM or use a credit card, you’ll get the official rate, which means you’ll be paying (11.3/7.89)-1 = 43% more for any given item than you should be.
I expected that it would be fairly easy to get the blue rate. It probably would have been if I had planned things more deliberately ahead of time. My understanding is that most hotels will hook you up with someone who can get you the proper rate. Once we had a waiter in a restaurant change $20 for us at 10 pesos to the dollar. Another time I asked a cashier at a café to change money at the blue rate, and he reacted as though I had just asked him, “Hey, do you have any drugs?” while he’s standing next to a cop. “No blue dollar,” he said; “just the official rate.”
We ultimately got 10 pesos to the dollar from Mobile Wechselstube, which delivered money to us by bicycle while we sipped cold drinks at a café. So if we were to do it again, I think we’d
- Change a small amount of money at the airport, just to get a cab to our AirBNB.
- Pre-arrange with Mobile Wechselstube to deliver to us at a café, or arrange with a friend to get 11-to-1.
It has to be mapped out ahead of time, though. That, I think, is the final lesson in all of this. In general, I hope I’ll be a lot more deliberate in my foreign-travel preparations from now on.
The exchange-rate situation is part of a larger story that I really need to understand in detail, given that it overlaps with a number of my interests and seems to intersect with larger parts of Argentine history. In capsule form (which is most of what I know at the moment): the current president, Cristina Kirchner, is the widow of the former president, Néstor Kirchner, who in 2007 fired the head of the agency for official statistics (Indec) when it dared to publish an estimate of inflation that was markedly higher than what the government said it was. The government has continued to insist on its inaccurate inflation numbers since 2007, apparently having gutted Indec’s autonomy in the meantime. The IMF took the strong step within the past few months of censuring the Argentine government over its statistical practices. Official statistics are in many ways central to the functioning of a modern industrial democracy; it’s a testament to the United States that our official statistics (the Census Bureau and the BLS specifically) are almost universally respected, with the exception of some cranks. I’d love to understand the institutional structures that keep our statistics collection independent. I’d also like to understand how the IMF can confirm that a nation is playing a game of funny buggers with its inflation statistics.
Back to our more-local story: if you get the blue exchange rate in Argentina, everything is really cheap. For instance, we had the best meal of our lives at Casa Felix for 400 pesos per person, including wine pairings. At 11.3 pesos to the dollar, that’s $35.39 per person for what — I repeat — was the best meal of our lives, including wine.
Indeed, flying around was the most expensive part of the trip, by far. Looking through my receipts, it looks like the whole trip cost $6500, of which about 70% was the airfare. Housing through AirBNB was only about 8% of the total cost.
We took the free walking tour around Buenos Aires, which I would highly recommend. It’s funded entirely through tips for the tour guides. We gave ours $20, and it seemed like most others on the tour did as well. Our tour guide was named Magdalena; she was charming as hell. I was concerned going into the tour that it would be propagandistic, or rather that it would whitewash the parts of Argentine history that don’t fit a pleasant narrative. Maybe I’ve been mis-trained by Boston tours, whose theme is basically “Boston was central to the American Revolution … and then a few hundred years passed.” No Joseph Rakes attacking Ted Landsmark with a flag pole there. So I was pleasantly surprised that Magdalena didn’t shy away from discussing the Dirty War.
You have to see tango while you’re there. I can’t pretend that I know The Best And Most Authentic Tango Spot In All Of Buenos Aires, but I would like to direct your favorable attention to Buenos Ayres [sic] Club. The night we went, dancing was in full effect, and El Afronte was blowing everyone’s minds. I must own their music now.
We saw something that is seemingly quite a lot less authentic the next night, having had our whistles wetted by El Afronte. This was Bar Sur. It’s run down, a little sad, and entirely surreal; I guess it’s a Porteño’s vision of what a tourist in Buenos Aires thinks tango is. I’m glad we saw El Afronte first; it was achingly intimate and lovely. (Bar Sur was 200 pesos per person after the doorman bargained himself down. I think his initial offer of 400 pesos, or whatever it was, was entirely for effect. The place was almost empty that night.)
Overall our itinerary was: first night in Palermo Hollywood, fly up to Iguazu, spend a few nights there, then fly back and spend a few nights in Palermo (near the Bulnes Subte station). Palermo is a really nice neighborhood to spend your time in; I would highly recommend it. Recoleta is also nice, but Palermo is more transit-accessible. The city has 40-some barrios, and we only saw maybe five of them, so I can’t say that we’ve landed on the one objectively correct place to stay. But we did well. We really enjoyed ourselves. If we were to do it all over again, I think I’d spend one day less — or maybe ideally half a day less — in Iguazu. And I’d probably explore San Telmo more during the day; our only encounter with it was the milonga at night, and a restaurant just before the milonga that was completely empty other than the two of us.
Speaking of which, a word on the Buenos Aires schedule: I don’t understand it at all. We’d heard from nearly everyone, guide books included, that Argentines start eating dinner around 10, and routinely go to bed around 2. You’d think, then, that their schedules would be shifted four hours or so ahead of the standard American one: Porteños would wake up at 10 or 11, get into work at noon, and leave around 8 or 9 pm. Then they’d come home, eat late, party, and start the cycle all over again. Yet in our week there, I don’t think we managed to understand exactly how the schedule worked. We definitely seemed to hop on the Subte at rush hour circa 9 or 10 am, and again at 6pm or so. And restaurants were deserted when everyone had suggested that they’d be packed. Were we picking the wrong restaurants? Or m’lady’s hypothesis: everyone who visits Buenos Aires, including guide book authors, is pulling a massive joke on the rest of us. Argentines want their restaurants to be free of tourists when it’s time for the natives to dine, so they tell everyone else to show up at 11pm. Here in Boston, a similar strategy would be to tell tourists that positively everyone drinks at Cheers and eats at Legal Seafoods, thereby leaving lots of free space at the bars we actually frequent.
If you’re lucky enough to spend more time in Buenos Aires than we did, maybe you can come back and explain to me how it works. Or maybe you’re in on the conspiracy too.