These are some of the ongoing/collected lessons from living in Buenos Aires for just over a month in November, 2009. I dropped in with a couple of plans w/o having done much background reading or prep, so many of these lessons are learned first hand. Some background comes from chatting w/ locals and experienced expats. Hopefully these stories are useful for any travelers thinking about dropping in.
Living / Neighborhoods
This past year has been very good for the USD vs the ARS (Argentinian Peso). The current exchange rate is 3.82 USD to 1 ARS (a peso is about 26 cents). This means that you can divide the cost of everything by 4 when you’re calculating against dollars. That being said, it’s worth thinking about pesos in terms of dollars, as you’ll find no one willing to exchange 100 peso bills in the same way that a local convenience store clerk would looked at you if you tried to drop a Benjamin for a pack of gum. Unfortunately, ATMs only spit out 100 peso bills, which as you can imagine leads to all kinds of wacky hijinks (Apparently, you can stand in line in a bank to exchange these 100 peso bills (sort of defeats the purpose of using the ATM?) – Pro tip: withdraw $X90 which will give you some small bills). Taxis can be particularly inconvenient if you don’t have small bills as they oftentimes don’t carry a lot of change. If you hand a large bill over you may also need to watch out for counterfeit bills being returned.
That’s not the end of it, however. Change is a also a mind-boggling Argentinian issue. It’s certainly the first time in my travels where it’s been this a huge deal. Coins, particularly 1 peso coins, are so rare that people would rather round down than give change. Also, instead of ones, people will give centavos (I currently have a single 1 peso coin, and about two dozen 10/25/50 centavo coins. Buses apparently only take fares in coins (usually 1.10 ARS), but the problem has been that these have been hoarded by the bus companies/mob, which exchanges change for 3% – here’s a Slate writeup that describes this. Apparently, this is still a big problem. Here’s another expat discussion about change (also).
Basic Tips/Getting Started
- There are 3 major cellular networks – Claro, Movistar, and Personal.
- Any Quad-band unlocked GSM (850/1900) phone will take their prepaid SIMs.
- For 3G, Movistar uses 850Mhz for HSDPA while Personal and Claro use 1900Mhz (an unlocked iPhone would probably work on 3G).
- A friend mentioned the different networks are about the same – I went to an official Claro dealer to get a SIM at the beginning of my trip, but was told that Movistar was better (yes, puzzling) and sold one of those instead – both were the same price, ARS$15 (just for the SIM, the recharge cards are separate and can be bought virtually anywhere). Later another friend said that Movistar is generally considered to have better service, but Claro has lower rates. It’s actually pretty hard to find rate charts but here is a 3rd party listing. Movistar has dual rates: more expensive than Claro for off-network, cheaper for on-network. It probably somewhat balances off…
- Turns out that Movistar is definitely the way to go for data – Movistar offers it for prepaid while Claro doesn’t at all, apparently. In fact, Movistar has virtually unlimited (1GB) day rates. At ARS$10/day ($2.62/day), it’s not exactly a steal, but after my second recharge, I got an offer to get data for 2 days (1GB) for ARS$9, which translates into a pretty reasonable $1.17/day (Send “D” to 2345). This is an even better deal when you buy ARS$50 at a Locutorio (dedicated phone shops), which gets you ARS$75 in credit. (data = 80 cents/day). Once I added the APN (MMS) and rebooted the phone, my Android phone worked like a charm w/ EDGE data.
- It took me a bit to figure out, but for Movistar, if you don’t speak Spanish well, the best way to find out how much value is left on your account is to text ‘saldo’ to 444. You get a few of those for free, otherwise you will pay for the SMS. Once you run out (say in the middle of a call), you get a text message – after that, you have to go to a specialized place (the afore-mentioned locutorio) to refill an empty card. Luckily these are also everywhere – the nearest one is just under a block away from where I’m living. From that store, a cashier will ring up your number at a specialized terminal and it’ll automatically deposit into your account – pretty handy – no PINs or cards involved and the credit (you’ll receive an SMS w/ confirmation) is almost instant (under a minute).
- Along w/ my Pre (CDMA; currently on vacation plan), I brought my (unlocked) iPhone 3G, but I’ve been using a Google Ion Android phone running the latest CyanogenMod (4.2.5) for carrying around, and have been pretty happy with it. It’s a little less conspicuous than an iPhone, and it has a compass and better better life (two very good things to have). The crappy camera (autofocus, but no flash, and mega-bad low-light performances) is the main weakness. I’ve posted notes of my home screen (with the most useful apps I’ve been using):
- Navigation/Offline maps really deserves its own blog posting. I’ll link to that when I do a full writeup. Suffice to say, while the combination of apps I have does the job (once you get your bearings, BA isn’t too hard to navigate, but these apps practically insure you’ll never get lost), however it’s too bad there’s nothing that combines everything in an easy-to-use way (directional views, map layers, offline maps, routing/routes, searching/venues).
- Argentinian power is 220V/50Hz vs 110V/60Hz in the US. There are dual plugs – ungrounded European-style rounded dual prong adapters are the most convenient to carry around (has dual plugs –
- Paper clips, foil-wrapped gum
- this is for MacGyvering more than anything else – having a piece of foil-wrapped gum is pretty useful.
The following are some of the resources I found to be the most useful.
- Argentina On Two Steaks A Day – Maciej’s food porn writeup
- Emily’s Guide To Buenos Aires – BA is Metric’s Emily Haines’ favorite city
- Expose: Buenos Aires – a surprisingly complete guide to many aspects of BA life (collected by a Canadian living in BA for 2.5yrs)
- LandingPadBA – lots of essays of varying quality on Argentinian Life
- BAExpats – A forum that has some interesting info and is good for meetups, getting real life advice, etc.
- Tourist2Townie – the ongoing blog of a US expat adjusting to life in BA
- Argentina’s Travel Guide – mostly w/ general information on Argentina
- Travel Buenos Aires Weblog – BA is an amazing city to walk in. There’s stuff to see no matter where you go, but this has a nice mix of suggestions if you get stuck in a rut.