Quick Guide to Buenos Aires - Argentina
What and where is Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina, located in the east side of the country facing the Atlantic ocean. Buenos Aires in English literally means “good air”. As at 2010, there are about 13 million people living in the metropolitan area, and 3 million people living in the city. The ethnicity of Argentinians is mainly Spanish and Italian. The heavy influence from Italy has made pasta a popular dish in Argentina.
The main exports of Argentina are soy beans and other agricultural items such as maize and beef. Recently, wine production has improved and also became a source of its export. The wines are mainly produced in the region of Mendoza.
The income discrepancy in Buenos Aires is large. There are areas in Buenos Aires that are for more affluent families, such as Puerto Madero or Recoletta. There are also many poor neighborhoods referred to as “bischas”. These “houses” do not have four walls. Often times, a section of the building is exposed due to the lack of a wall. For tourists, these areas are not safe. The government have many times tried to relocate the bischas away from prime real estate locations, but have been unsuccessful.
1. Argentinian beef
Argentinian beef are widely acclaimed for its quality. If you are in Buenos Aires, you cannot miss a night without going to a fine-dining restaurant to try their Argentinian beef. You should also pair the beef with its delicious Chimichurri sauce (the green stuff).
You can definitely eat pasta anywhere around the world. However, since Buenos Aires cuisine is heavily influenced by Italian culture, the pasta in Buenos Aires is quite authentic.
The term Milanesa basically means deep fried. You can have Milanesa dish on either chicken or beef. The sauce can be anything: BBQ, lemon cream, tomato, chili sauce. Club de la Milanesa is a restaurant chain in Buenos Aires that allow you to try all kinds of Milanesa dish.
This is basically a national sweet treat in South America. It is a small cylindrical treat usually filled with dulce de leche (caramel). There are of course lots of variations such as mixing it with dark or white chocolate. I have even seen Alfajores mixed with Oreo or Choco Chips. Anyway, the best brand for Alfajors in Argentina is Havana. This is definitely one of the best ideas for souvenirs.
5. Chorizo sausage
Chorizo is not a foreign dish for most Latin American countries. However, chorizo sausages are quite famous in Buenos Aires. A restaurant that I would recommend for chorizo sausages is Santos Manjares.
Locro is a traditional dish in Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. It is made up of corn, beans, potato and other kinds of meat. It's a type of stew and it is very filling. You'd love it after a long day of hike.
Mate (pronounced as Matay) is a national drink in Argentina. Everyone drinks Mate here. It is like coke to North America or bubble tea to Asian countries. Mate is basically a hot drink prepared in yerba mate leaves and mixed with hot water. You use a metal straw to suck the juice out. The straw is called “bombilla”. When I tried it, to me it is very similar to Chinese tea except stronger. According to my friend in Buenos Aires, it is a social drink or afternoon drink (like high tea). Sometimes everyone just share the same straw.
Wine is famous in Argentina. In fact, one of my most favourite red wines in the world is Argentinian Malbec. To me, Malbecs are not too strong, not too weak. Perfect for me!
Not exactly a special drink. It deserves a special mention because I’m biased and I really like this drink. This is basically hot chocolate well made in Argentina. They give you hot milk and a separate chocolate bar. You then drop the chocolate bar to the hot milk, while sinking the bar (similar to a submarine, get it?)
Things that I have learned (interesting facts)
1. Dinner time
One of the most shocking facts that I’ve learned in Buenos Aires is how late Argentinians eat. People in Argentina generally don’t start eating until 10 pm. Their dinner can last at least 3 hours, which could well be till 1 am. When I was in Buenos Aires, I was shocked to see that the restaurants were still at full-house at 12:30 am. More importantly, these restaurants patrons aren’t young people; they are a mixture of young, middle age and old people (all kinds of people!). Not surprisingly, restaurants in Argentina do not open until 8 pm.
When I asked my friend in Argentina to eat dinner, we had to reach a compromise (9 pm) because I cannot last my night without eating. Argentinians eat their lunch at 1 pm, so for the 9 hours between lunch and dinner, they have afternoon snacks. Have an alfajor!
2. Desire for USD
Argentina has been troubled with its economic recession and hyper inflation (20% - 30% per year). As a result of the government's control of its local currency, exchange of local currency to foreign currency (such as USD) is restricted. Hence, there is a tremendous desire in Argentina to obtain USD currency. While we were walking on the streets of Buenos Aires, we often here people yelling “Cambio”, which means exchange. There are many black markets in Argentina that are willing to pay you a better foreign exchange rate (25 to 30 basis points) just to exchange for USD. When we were in Buenos Aires, the exchange centres were willing to pay 17.2 Argentinian pesos for 1 USD. The black market person we talked to is willing to pay 17.5 Argentinian pesos for 1 USD.
3. Mandatory voting and restriction of alcohol
In Argentina, it is mandatory for its citizens to vote, otherwise you will either get a fine or be sentenced to jail. In order to ensure that its citizens are voting logically, the government bans any kind of alcohol sale the day before the election. When I was in Buenos Aires, it happened that the following Sunday was going to be an election day, meaning the entire Saturday will have no alcohol sale. I went to the supermarket to check out the alcohol section and I was surprised to see that the store just wrapped the entire alcohol section to prove a point – no alcohol sale!
4. The statue of the leg horse indicates the fate of the hero
A very interesting fact that I learned in Buenos Aires is the heroic statues that were placed in various hot spots in the city. If the horse has all four legs on the ground, it means that the hero died of old age. If the horse has one leg lifted up, it means the hero died as a result of a battle injury. If the horse lift its two front legs, it means the hero died during a battle. Interesting eh?
Transportation in Buenos Aires is fairly easy. Their public transportation infrastructure is quite complete. There are 6 subway lines that pretty much reach the important places in Buenos Aires. For unreachable areas, the local buses will take care of it.
Traveling around Buenos Aires via public transportation is very safe. However, you must carry a “SUBE” card which is basically their transportation card in order to go through subway stations or to pay for bus fare. Buenos Aires eliminated bus coins a while ago and replaced it with the “SUBE” card. This is similar to an Octopus card in Hong Kong, an Oyster card in London or a Presto card in Toronto.
You could alternatively take the Uber in Buenos Aires to travel. It is quite easy to get an Uber in Buenos Aires but it is also technically illegal. Therefore, if you see the Uber driver comes out of his/her car and became very friendly with you (it could all just be for show to establish an appearance of friends). An Uber fare from the EZE airport to the city centre is approximately $50 CAD.
Buenos Aires is like a city of Tango. For a lot of places that you go (at least touristy places), you’ll see locals dressed up as Tango dancers ready to take pictures with you (of course you have to pay). Sometimes, you even see them dancing Tango on the streets. Many restaurants also offer dinner and Tango shows as a package. In the touristy markets, pretty much all artifacts, statues or magnets are related to either Tango or Malfalda (to be explained later).
We watched a Tango show at a restaurant. The show was about an hour and a half, and costs $90 USD. It was well worth it and I definitely recommend watching an exhibition Tango dance show. If you want a dinner package, then it typically costs around $120 USD. For the extra $30 USD that you pay, it is not worth it. I have read reviews that the dinner usually suck. In my opinion, it is best that you eat dinner separately and watch the Tango show on a full stomach. If you want to watch a Tango show, I recommend Café de los Angelitos.
Normal Tangos are not like exhibition Tangos. Normal social Tangos are social gathering dances where you dance with very little floor space and utilize the basic Tango moves. The basic Tango moves are referred as the Ocho moves. The moves aren’t flashy but still utilize the flicking of the legs.
A milonga is a place where people gather and dance social Tangos. There are about 20 milongas in Buenos Aires and they open every night. The usual start time is 6 pm and can often last till 12 am. The way Milongas are set up is that the male sit on one side, and the female sit on the other. At the beginning of the song, the male will try to make eye contact with the female (as an invitation to dance). If the female accepts, she will nod her head. The male will then move up from his chair and walk to the other side to invite the female to dance. The pair will then dance through a series of 4 songs, with a 30 second break in between each song.
When I was at the Milonga, it was quite a scene. Often times, I wonder what the pairs talk about during the 30 second break. According to my instructor, they are basically small talks, like “how are your kids?”, “how was your weekend?”, “any trips planned this year?” Most of the people that went to this particular Milonga are older people.
At the Milonga, you could even see the 10 commandments of Tango!
When I tried Tango at the Milonga, it was very difficult. The moves that you learned in your class may sometimes not apply in the Milonga due to the lack of space. I took my quick crash course with Lucia & Gerry (highly recommended, you can find them in Tripadvisor). Thankfully, Lucia was able to guide me through the steps while dancing Tango in that tight space.
Exhibition Tango is very different. They often involved acrobatic moves, excellent choreography and highly advanced Tango moves. Think about Dancing with the Stars. You probably need some intensive training to replicate the moves. They are definitely the more visually appealing type of dance. However, don’t mix the exhibition Tango with social Tango. They are very very different.
Mafalda is a cute little 6-year old cartoon girl that basically became the mascot of Buenos Aires. She was created in 1964 and appeared in the local newspaper discussing political issues. The comic strip ran from 1964 to 1973, and later appeared in the magazines. The topics that she raised often include controversial issues such as North Korea, and communism.
If you weren’t informed, you probably would think that Mafalda is a children cartoon, similar to Hello Kitty. In fact, Mafalda is a sassy girl that raises issues that are pretty much geared towards grown adults. In most tourist areas, you’ll see figurines of Mafalda everywhere! There is a statue of Mafalda in the “Paseo de la Historieta” in Buenos Aires.
Must see (Landmark)
1. Recoleta cemetery
Recoleta cemetery is one of the major landmarks in Buenos Aires. It is located in an expensive area, Recoleta. There are approximately 300 tombstones, containing graves of the important Argentinians, which include military commanders, past presidents and Nobel prize winners. Often times, each grave contains the coffin of multiple people, usually family members. The land space was so tight that the tombstones were often very narrow. Some were poorly maintained (the family probably didn’t pay the maintenance fee). A notable person that was buried in the Recoleta cemetery is General Sarmiento, an important figure in Argentina.
Recoleta cemetery was recognized as one of the top 10 cemeteries in the world listed by CNN.
2. Puerto Madero
It is one of the more expensive areas in Buenos Aires, located at the far east of Buenos Aires. This is a nice area with a river in between. It is a nice place to take a jog and a great hang out spot with friends and loved ones. The restaurants are expensive but are catered more towards expats. While you walk along the river, you’ll see a beautiful bridge called Puente de la Mujer. At night time, the bridge is lit up.
3. Caminito / La Boca
La Boca is located on the south side of Buenos Aires. You can take the local bus and reach there easily. La Boca is a rather poor neighborhood (still safe). However, one of their proud establishments is their local football team Club Ateltico Boca Juniors. This is the most successful Argentinian football club, winning 66 official titles. The Boca Juniors also have won 22 international titles. Boca Juniors was ranked 4th in terms of international brand recognition, behind AC Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona. You can tour around the football stadium for a price of $50 USD.
A notable Boca Juniors football player was Diego Maradona, the creator of Hand of God.
Caminito is located inside the La Boca neighborhood. It is a very short street that is only 80 metres long. The attraction is that the houses are painted in various bright colours.In the early 1900s, the river near Caminito was used as a shipping dock. When the water dried up, the dock was no longer used and the neighborhood quickly became a landfill. In the 1960s, an Argentinian artist decided to do a street makeover and painted the walls of the house using bright colours. Ever since, this street became a tourist attraction and many small markets begin to emerge.
Palermo is an area located north of Buenos Aires (also accessible via subway). There is a large park in Palermo, called “Bosques de Palermo”. On the weekend, thousands of people go to the park to hang out, play floor hockey, ride on roller-blades, bike around the park, stand on slacklines etc. Nearby the park, you can also go to the Galileo Galilei Planetarium.
5. Casa Rosada
La Casa Rosada is the executive mansion of the president of Argentina (basically their white house). The building also became a museum of past presidents.
Like all president houses, there are often protests right outside of the building. In Argentina, there is no exception. Nearby Casa Rosada, you may notice a symbol that looks like a scarf for older women. This symbol is basically a reminder of an event where the government abducted about 30,000 young children in the 1970s and 1980s. These children were given to military families, who would be raised as “law-abiding citizens”. The action was part of the military dictatorship campaign that lasted during the time. As a result, organizations and people were reminded to search for these “disappeared” children and to remind the current government to never forget the past.
6. San Telmo
San Telmo is located in the city centre. It is a well-preserved area in Buenos Aires that is categorized with colonial buildings. On weekends, you’ll see many mini-markets, Tango dancers emerge on the streets. It is definitely quite a sight. If you are lucky to see the Mafalda statue without a lineup, be sure to take a picture with the statue.