Buenos Aires Argentina is a huge, dynamic, and sometimes-baffling city that absolutely deserves a spot on your travel bucket list. We spent one month in Buenos Aires earlier this year, and I feel that we came to understand the place pretty well. I’ve written about several of our unique experiences in Buenos Aires already. But for this post, I want to highlight what I think are the most practical Buenos Aires travel tips to help you more effectively plan your own visit to this great South American city.
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The Crazy Money Situation
The first of these Buenos Aires travel tips is to prepare yourself for the most unusual money situation that you may ever come across while traveling. It’s certainly the craziest we’ve experienced so far in our travels. Let me introduce you to the Blue Dollar.
Inflation is currently a huge problem in Argentina. I know….it’s been a problem everywhere else too. But how about an inflation rate over 100%? Consequently, the Argentine Peso is so devalued that foreign hard currency – especially the US dollar – is highly coveted.
As a result, when exchanging money in Argentina, you can get an entirely different rate if you use actual US hard currency (and preferably $100 bills). This is called the Blue Dollar Rate. (There is a version for the Euro, too.)
And it’s not a small difference either. How about more than double the official rate??!!
However, in order to get the very highest rate, you need to exchange “illegally” at underground exchange houses called Cuevas or Caves. You cannot get the Blue Dollar rate at a bank.
The government is aware of cave exchanges, but basically looks the other way. In fact earlier this year, the government arranged with Visa and Mastercard to give a rate somewhat closer to the Blue Rate when purchases are made using a foreign issued card.
But I found that we always received the most Pesos for our Dollars by exchanging cash at a Cave. And it was the easiest illegal thing I’ve ever done. In fact, our Airbnb host escorted us to our neighborhood cave right after she showed us through our apartment. There we exchanged ten $100 US bills for three hundred ninety 1000 Peso bills. (Later in the trip, we confidently returned on our own.)
Because inflation has devalued the Peso so much, the highest value currency in Argentina – the 1000 peso bill – was worth less than 3 US dollars during our visit. I mean, look at that handful of cash! Consequently, buying an average-priced lunch or dinner usually required about 12 bills. A nicer dinner around 20-25. I would generally carry 2-3 wads of cash with me wherever we went.
(And in the 4 months since we left Argentina, inflation and peso devaluation has marched on. Now the 1000 peso bill is worth less than 2 US dollars, so your own handful of pesos will be even bigger!)
Because this is actually a complicated topic with a lot of nuances, here’s a great article with even more detailed advice about how to navigate the complicated currency situation in Buenos Aires.
Our Cheapest Trip Yet
The second of my Buenos Aires travel tips is a followup to the first – take full advantage of the Blue Dollar. If you do, your costs in Buenos Aires are more than halved. Everything you pay for in cash, whether it be food or transportation or sightseeing, will end up costing you a lot less.
For example, our non-lodging expenses in Greece last year were $118 per day. In Spain, $123 per day. And I consider these both relatively inexpensive European destinations.
In Buenos Aires, our non-lodging expenses were $76 per day
And I did ultimately choose to stick with cash only – even though I had to carry around a lot of it (given the low worth of those 1000 peso bills). I found that the rate I received on my Visa card was at best 10% less than the Blue Dollar, and at worse 40% less. The credit card exchange rate seemed to vary in a baffling and inconsistent way. So after a few tries, I put it away.
Buenos Aires Seemed Safer than Expected
Speaking of carrying around wads of cash, what about safety in Buenos Aires? Prior to our decision to travel there, I’d read that while Buenos Aires is considered one of the safest cities in South America, petty crime could still be concern for us.
I’d read about cell phones being snatched from photo-taking hands, about avoiding walking the streets at night, about pickpockets, and about the occasional mugging.
But in reality, I never really felt unsafe in Buenos Aires. We did stay in what’s considered the most upscale neighborhood in the city – Recoleta. And I’m sure that helped with my general sense of security. But still, we walked the streets in the evening in various neighborhoods. And I did take pictures with my cellphone while out and about.
So the third of my Buenos Aires travel tips is that when it comes to safety, just be smart and stay vigilant….like anywhere else you would travel. Take the usual precautions against pickpockets and purse-snatchers. Avoid the wrong neighborhoods at night. Pay attention to your surroundings. Etc. Etc.
Plus I did heed the advice I’d read online regarding cellphone snatching. Whenever I used my iPhone for anything other than picture taking (consulting Google Maps, etc), I used it away from the curb and in a doorway.
What About Taxi Scams?
I also read about tourists being scammed by taxi drivers in Buenos Aires. And I did heed the advice of my Airbnb host by not taking a random taxi from the airport. It seems that the most common taxi scams reportedly happen in Buenos Aires airport taxis – though it’s usually just instances of getting overcharged.
(I generally always use Booking.com’s efficient and cost-effective airport taxi service anyway, and did in Buenos Aires as well.)
I’d also read that when using taxis in the city, that it’s generally safer to use “Radio Taxis” rather than Independent Taxis. Less likelihood of a scam in the Radio Taxi. (Though again the most common scams are overcharging or taking a longer-than-necessary route).
Radio Taxis are registered with a taxi company, and so theoretically can be tracked down easier if there is a problem. The driver’s info is always displayed on the back of a front seat as well. You can spot a Radio Taxi by signage on the front and back door, a taxi light on top of the car.
Independant Taxis only have signage on the front door, and nothing on the roof.
We took taxis all the time in the city. But I quickly found that it was generally much easier to hail an Independent Taxi. There are simply a lot more of them.
And I never had any problems whatsoever with either type.
So the fourth of my Buenos Aires travel tips is that you can feel comfortable with any type of taxi…except from the airport.
Taxis are cheap and very convenient. We could usually hail one within a minute or two. And when I say cheap, I mean cheap. Typically around $2-3 to go wherever we wanted to go within central Beunos Aires. Cash only though.
Those Taxi Drivers Speak a Little English, Right?
So the fifth of my Buenos Aires travel tips is that if you plan on using taxis, then you need be comfortable speaking just a little Spanish.
And I mean just a little. All you generally need to tell the driver are the two cross streets (easily found on Google Maps). So, if you can read and then pronounce a few words in Spanish, you can communicate adequately with the driver. Don’t tell the driver your destination, that usually causes confusion. Just the two cross streets. It worked for us every single time.
So for example, on the map below. If I wanted to go to Plaza Mafalda, I would simply tell the driver Conde y Concepción Arenal. Easy as that.
But… if I decided I couldn’t confidently pronounce the street names (some of them are really long), I would use Cabify instead.
Cabify in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aries does have ride share options, in addition to taxis. So the sixth of my Buenos Aires travel tips is to download the Cabify app.
You can use Uber in Buenos Aires, but Uber is actually an illegally operating company in Argentina. This doesn’t seem to matter, and clearly isn’t enforced. But I found Uber to be more expensive than a taxi or Cabify – sometimes by a lot.
Cabify is a ride share service that originated in Spain and has since branched out to other Spanish-speaking countries. I’ve used it for getting around Cartagena Colombia. It’s legal in Buenos Aires and I used it whenever I wanted the convenience of indicating my destination in the App, but didn’t mind waiting up to 10 minutes sometimes for a ride. And I found the cost was almost always exactly the same as a taxi to the same destination.
But, here’s a couple of important points for smooth usage of Cabify in Buenos Aires. First of all, when you register your Cabify account in the app, you will be asked to provide an identification number. The app will not work without one. It accepted my passport number.
Also, you have the option of indicating cash payment when you order your ride. Choose this! As I’ve already discussed, I used cash everywhere in Buenos Aires anyway to take advantage of the Blue Rate. But I’d read that ride share drivers will not agree to a pick-up if they see that the potential customer will be using credit card as payment in the app. They prefer to be paid in cash.
And from personal experience, I will say this seems to be true. We tried it once, and were rejected by one driver after another. After about 10 failed driver matches, the app apologized and told me they couldn’t find us a driver, cancelling the ride.
What About Other Transportation in Buenos Aires?
I love to use public transportation. For one thing, we travel on a budget and public transportation usually costs a lot less than other options. And for another thing, using public transportation generally offers a more authentic travel experience.
However, in Buenos Aires we never used public transportation. Part of this had to do with the location of our Airbnb. It was not located even reasonably close to any subway lines.
But, even if we’d wanted to use the subway system, this would have been somewhat difficult. There was a shortage of Sube cards during our visit (named slightly different than the subway Subte). A Sube card is the pre-loaded travel card required for all public transportation in Buenos Aires, including buses. But, they weren’t available at any of the usual spots (convenience stores and subway stations). Reportedly, there was a shortage of one of the materials used to make them.
After some online searching, I discovered that I could get a Sube card at the Retiro Train Station in central Buenos Aires. (Apparently the government had a supply on hand for tourists, but only at very specific locations). Ultimately though, I chose not to get one. We were getting around cheaply via taxis and Cabify – much more convenient.
So the seventh of my Buenos Aires travel tips is that if you want a Sube card, and can’t find one at any of the usual retailers, go to the Retiro Train Station (or supposedly at any of the Tourist Information kiosks around town). And also take your passport – it’s a necessary requirement for obtaining one.
Let’s Talk About Communication Some More
The eighth of my Buenos Aires travel tips is don’t expect anyone to speak English in Buenos Aires. Unlike traveling in Europe, where English is widely spoken, especially in tourist hot spots, most people in Buenos Aires do not speak English.
I already mentioned cab drivers, but the list includes shop keepers and restaurant servers, too.
Plus, English menus are not common (though a simple menu like the one below is pretty easy to figure out).
Occasionally we would come across an English speaker in areas most commonly visited by tourists – like the Caminito, San Telmo Market, or the shops on Florida Street. I also would assume that English is spoken in hotels. And we had no problem finding English speaking tours.
But for the most part, I relied on Apple Translate and my own rudimentary Spanish skills to communicate during regular daily life.
And it was fine. Part of the fun of travel.
And Speaking of Menus, What About the Food?
In Argentina, they love their beef. So the ninth of my Buenos Aires Travel Tips is to forget about watching your cholesterol intake while eating your way around town.
I’ve written an entire blog post dedicated to Food in Buenos Aires, but you can expect to have some of the greatest steak you’ve ever eaten while visiting this city.
You’ll also find that Argentine pizza may be the cheesiest ever…
That empanadas are most definitely the favorite go-to snack or cheap meal…
Followed closely by the Choripan – a grilled sausage sandwich…
And that Buenos Aires has some of the most delicious ice cream that you’’ll find anywhere in the world…
So again, if you care about your cholesterol, you’ll need to take a break from that concern while visiting Buenos Aires.
(We made up for it by eating a lot of salads and fish once we returned home.)
Buenos Aires is More About The Vibe
The final of my Buenos Aires Travel Tips is don’t go there expecting to tick off one major site after another. Buenos Aires isn’t like that. This huge city is more about the vibe, rather than a bunch of specific sites.
Buenos Aires is relatively young – with most of it’s modern history dating only to the 19th century. Consequently there aren’t a whole bunch of centuries-old sites like in Europe or even other countries in South America.
Instead, Buenos Aires is a collection of neighborhoods, each with its own character, and collection of things to see.
The classic Parisian architecture of central Buenos Aires…
The tree-lined bohemian Palermo Soho…
The overly touristy but still essential Caminito in La Boca…
The ultra modern Puerto Madero…
And that’s just to name a few.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t specific sites to visit. The Recoleta cemetery, the Opera House, Plaza de Mayo all require a visit, along with all the sites related to the iconic Eva Peron.
But I found that visiting Buenos Aires was more about wandering aimlessly, than touring with purpose.
Buenos Aires is obviously a great place, but it took me a little longer to wrap my head around its complexities than a lot of other places I’ve visited. I hope these 10 practical Buenos Aires travel tips can help make your trip to this amazing city just a little easier.
If you would like to read more from our time in Buenos Aires then check out these posts:
And if you would like to Travel Tips to some other great places around the world, then check out these posts: