As I blow my nose for the umpteenth time thanks to the common cold spreading across Argentina, I recount the five days I recently spent in Buenos Aires.
A short trip—there for just one reason: to run the fastest marathon of my life.
Thankfully, I can report I succeeded at this, crossing the finish line of the Buenos Aires Marathon in 3:50:30—nearly seven minutes faster than my previous record, set during my first race ever in Eugene, Oregon.
I picked this marathon with great care; it’s an extremely flat course during a time of year with excellent running weather. And I must say, I’m relieved to have met my goal. After trying and failing on four other continents, I finally made it.
If you don’t know already, I’m on a mission to run a marathon on every continent. Next year, I’ll complete my mission with a cruise to Antarctica. I don’t expect to be setting any records in the snow.
Six down, one to go.
That’s all interesting, but what you probably want to know is: “What’s Buenos Aires like?”
Well, it’s a beautiful city and certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area (or worth a trip in its own right), but before you show up, there are just a few things you’ll want to know before you arrive that’ll make your time there more comfortable and affordable.
What to know before you come to Buenos Aires
1. Bring cash. Lots of cash.
Argentina’s economy is a complete disaster, and the government has nationalized everything that isn’t bolted down (such as the banks where you’ll exchange your currency). Inflation is so bad that residents store their wealth by buying cars instead of opening savings accounts.
So, the Argentine Peso isn’t worth much, and the value falls every day. As a result, the government has made it illegal to trade currencies with anyone but them, and they’ve fixed the exchange rate.
All this to say, you’re going to love your stay in beautiful Buenos Aires, but if you show up with nothing but plastic, you’re going to pay a lot of money just to get your spending cash. And this is all before you pay the incredibly high ATM fees of about $6/transaction.
So, what’s a traveler to do? Bring cash! And lots of it! Any western currency will do—EUR/USD/AUD/CAD/GBP—whatever you fancy.
When you get to town, ask the concierge at your hotel—or anyone who knows the city—where a safe place to exchange your money is. Calle Florida (a street downtown) is a popular place, but you’ll find more reputable shops hidden in other, more wealthy neighborhoods like Palermo.
And the difference in exchange rate is significant. As I write this, the national bank exchanges USD at a rate of about 5.8 pesos to the dollar. The unofficial shops will exchange anywhere between 8-9.5 pesos per dollar—64% better!
This is technically illegal, but widely practiced. The reason you get such a better rate outside the bank is because everyone there wants foreign money; they’re running away from their own currency. Be a thoughtful tourist and give them what they’re looking for!
Feel free to exchange more than you need. If you head back to the airport with leftovers, just exchange them back to your currency at the bank for a tidy profit.
2. If it isn’t food, it’s too expensive.
Buenos Aires is not the place to go to do a lot of shopping. Wander into just about any retail store and you’ll quickly learn you can find better deals at home.
Again, you can thank Argentina’s out-of-control inflation. But there’s good news! In trying to control inflation, the government has fixed the prices of things like groceries and other necessities.
For some bizarre reason, though, fast food is extremely popular with the people of Buenos Aires. There are McDonald’s stores everywhere and walking into one is like wandering onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange—people smashed together shouting their orders and waving money in the air.
The grocery store is your friend! Unprepared food is pretty cheap, and a western-style Carrefour grocery store is never more than a few blocks away.
If you want to eat out, look for smaller, family style restaurants and stay away from chains. Buenos Aires is filled with popular fast food options, but they’re extremely expensive, and the mom and pop diner down the street is often half the price for healthier, tastier food.
Pro-tip: Buy your groceries on weekdays. Many grocery stores close on the weekends, and finding anything open on Sunday becomes a true needle-in-a-haystack scenario.
This was my biggest mistake, finishing a marathon on Sunday morning only to realize I didn’t have any food.
3. Don’t bother waiting in lines.
When I’m in London, my British friends like to joke about how good they are at queuing. Everywhere you go, people file into orderly lines; get in at the end and when it’s your turn, it’s your turn.
If this is how you prefer to live, you’ll do just fine in Great Britain, much of Europe, and North America. But much of the rest of the world does not work like this, and Buenos Aires is no exception.
If you’re in a crowded place and you want someone’s attention/to get on a bus/make it on the elevator/etc., you’ll need to channel your inner gladiator spirit.
I learned the intricacies of this lesson as I watched several hundred people all try to retrieve their race bags at the end of the marathon.
At first, there was an orderly line. Then, a few people showed up, stepped in front of the line, and it was chaos from there on out. After watching the strongest competitors work their magic, I mimicked their behavior and had my bag in just a few minutes while hundreds of people packed in behind me.
For best results simply:
- Gently nudge your way to the front of the crowd. Smile as you do so, and don’t be afraid to put your body into spaces it does not appear to fit. This is normal behavior.
- Wave your hand around wildly. The more movement you make, the more likely you are to get attention.
- Shout loudly, but not continuously. The people I saw get to the front of the line fastest were quite loud, but they would time their shouts strategically during volume lulls. The ones that shouted continuously seemed to be ignored.
While it’s pretty foreign to me, I kind of like this system. If I’m in a hurry at home in The States and want to cut the line, I’m a jerk. But in Buenos Aires I’m just “doing it right.”
4. All important meetings should be set 20 minutes early.
In Argentina, there are few things that happen according to schedules. Meetings with friends, the time the store opens, and when the bus arrives are more guidelines than standards.
As a general rule, if something needs to be done at a specific time, schedule it 20 minutes earlier.
This can be frustrating at first if you’re from a place that idolizes being on time, but you get the hang of it quickly. Try not to complain about it. Instead, just adapt.
5. Trust traffic, not traffic lights.
For as frightening as the traffic in Buenos Aires is, I have to say I never saw so much as a fender bender in the five days I spent wandering around.
The only metaphor I can apply to it is a finely stitched tapestry of chaos. It’s a step up from Nairobi where 6 lane streets have no lines painted on them and taxi drivers pride themselves on their ability to play chicken better than other drivers, but navigating as a pedestrian is still a bit daunting.
Most major intersections have designated cross-walks and even walk/don’t walk signals, but you’d be a fool to rely on them.
When crossing the street in downtown BA, always remember that—whether right or wrong—the car has the right of way. No one voluntarily stops for pedestrians, and running red lights is, as far as I can tell, a kind of sport that BA drivers take great pride in.
So, when crossing the street, Mother’s old adage of “look both ways” truly applies. Don’t step into traffic until the car in that lane has stopped for you, and never assume a car will stop because you’re in traffic, even if the driver sees you.
The one tourist I saw who ignored this advice left a small dent in the hood of an oncoming car. (Don’t worry, everyone was okay.)
Here’s something else that’s funny about traffic in BA: traffic drives on the right side of the road, but buses on major thoroughfares drive on the left! It all makes sense once you get the hang of it (buses have their own traffic lanes), but it makes crossing major streets extremely confusing the first few times as you try to cross 8 lanes of car traffic and 4 bus lanes all while changing the direction of travel for each.
6. Hoard your $1 coins as if they’re pure gold.
Here’s one more funny thing about Argentina’s money:
You need lots of $1 coins to quickly get through the country’s largely cash-based economy each day, but they’re incredibly hard to come by. This is caused by a number of factors:
- The government doesn’t circulate enough of them.
- There’s a $2 bill that merchants will give you any time your change due is an even number.
- So many things seem to be priced in odd numbers!
All this adds up to create a situation where you’re constantly asked for $1 coins, and you’ll be lucky to have any to spare.
Most merchants have checkout systems to manage discounts—you often get a discount if you don’t have proper change—so you won’t hold up lines too long, but you can’t get away with this on the bus. You have to buy your fare onboard, and the machines only accept coins.
If you plan to ride the bus often, your best bet is to pretend you don’t have any $1 coins any time you’re asked for them in a transaction. They’re so valuable; never give them up!
Enjoy your stay!
Buenos Aires is such a fun city! You can party, go tango dancing, or just find a café to hang out at any night of the week (except Sunday!). You need only to apply the few rules above to make the most of your trip.
I had a great time, and I look forward to someday returning.
If you’re a runner, consider going in the spring for the official city marathon. It’s a great course!
Yours in risk-taking,