Planning a trip to Buenos Aires? Here are several tips that will help you once you arrive:
1. After you’ve retrieved your bags and made your way through customs and immigration at the airport, walk past those kindly strangers who approach you and ask if you need a cab. Instead, go outside to the taxi stand and locate an officially licensed radio taxi. They’re the ones bearing a white sticker with the red letters IRA on the passenger side of the windshield. If possible, negotiate or at least ask about the fare in advance. There’s a 6 peso toll involved, but if they want more than 75 or 85 pesos total ($25-$28) for a ride into the city, you’re being overcharged.
Then be prepared for a thrilling drive. Lane markers are merely "suggestions" in Buenos Aires, so don’t be surprised when four lanes of traffic are zipping along on three lanes of highway at 70 miles an hour.
2. Spanish, of course, is the predominant language in Buenos Aires, although the Argentine version is spoken quite differently from what we in the United States are accustomed to. First of all, it’s Spanish spoken with an Italian accent (60% of the population has Italian lineage, while 30% are of Spanish descent).
Another big difference lies in the pronunciation of the y and ll sounds, which in Argentina more closely resembles a zh sound, or the si in the word vision. For example, one of the major streets in Buenos Aires is Avenida Callao, which is pronounced kah-ZHAO. Plaza de Mayo is pronounced plaza de ma-ZHO.
3. Counterfeit currency is a problem in Buenos Aires. While not as widespread as it was a year or two ago, there are still plenty of phony bills floating around, with 10 peso notes ($3.25) the most common forged note.
So how do you spot a fake? Be suspicious of newer paper, and hold the bill up to the light. There will be no metallic ribbon woven into the edge of the etched and white backgrounds, next to the brown diamonds. The aforementioned diamonds were black instead of brown on a fake we got, and the graphics and historical celeb (Manuel Belgrano on the 10 peso notes) will not be as sharp. Also, the "10" in the lower right corner will not change color as the light changes. If a bill doesn’t pass muster, simply ask for another.
4. The hippest shopping in Buenos Aires is found in the barrios of Palermo and Palermo Viejo, which is also known as Palermo Soho. Countless boutiques offer merchandise, ranging from furniture, home accessories, and art, to fashions, toys, and stationary.
For leather jackets, belts, and bags, factory-direct outlet shops along Calle Murillo at Avenida Scalabrini Ortiz offer significant discounts to those along the more heavily traveled pedestrian-only shopping street of Avenida Florida downtown in El Centro. The outlet shops will also offer a 15%-20% discount if you pay in cash rather than a credit card.
5. The Argentine diet consists largely of grilled meat and, well, more grilled meat. If you’re steak lovers like us, Buenos Aires is a darned fine place to be. Be aware, however, medium rare in Buenos Aires is something quite different from what it is the United States. Frankly, it’s overcooked: medium to medium well. Don’t let this ruin an otherwise excellent meal. Ask that your steak arrive con sangre (with blood). Once we figured this out, every steak we ordered was served joyously red and juicy, perfect medium rare as we know it.
6. San Telmo is a popular destination for tourists, especially on Sundays when locals gather for the large flea market in Plaza Dorrego. You’ll be able to see the city’s young tango talent dance on the cobbled streets for tips, but to be honest, San Telmo reminded us both, in its ambiance and architecture, of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Been there, done that. Out of our group of four, it got four thumbs down. Your opinion, of course, may differ.
7. Palermo Viejo has its act together. As previously mentioned, the barrio boasts the best shopping in the city, not to mention many outstanding restaurants, and also serves as the city’s design district. Three free, color-coded maps of Palermo Viejo are available at many of the area’s retailers.
One, Gastronomia, will help you locate restaurants, bars, and hotels in Palermo Viejo. A nice touch is that the restaurants are color-coded by type of cuisine. Equipamiento will help you find all things furniture, accessories, toys, and art. Consult the third, Indumetaria, to find retailers selling clothing and accessories.
8. Having seen much of the city, for a return visit we’d favor the barrio Palermo for hotel accomodations. Two outstanding, moderately priced options in great locations are the bobo Hotel, which made Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s 2005 Hot List, and 5 Cool Rooms. But the word is out: reserve well in advance.
9. La Boca = Overrated. Yes, the barrio’s colorful buildings are a photo-op, but the place is incredibly cheezy, not to mention dicey. It’s downright dangerous after dark. After 10 minutes all of us were ready to leave. It’s a good thing taxis are so inexpensive, or the photo-op wouldn’t even have been worth the fare. If you insist on going, do so in daylight hours, and even then only for an hour or so.
10. Not only do cab drivers know a lot about the city, they can also make great conversationalists. If you speak a little Spanish, try to engage them in conversation. We found out the scoop on upcoming nation-wide elections from one cabbie, and were serenaded with Frank Sinatra tunes and La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, on a hilarious crosstown ride with another, a chemical engineer his third night on the job, who’d taken on the night gig to support his wife and three children.
11. If you're willing to accept the limitations a language barrier can impose, attending a live performance or the theatre can be a great way to get a taste of the local scene. We saw the Buenos Aires production of The Producers. Yes, we missed a lot of the jokes, but everyone knows the story, and the costumes were hilarious. Where else can you get the best seats in the house to see the hottest show in town for US$20 a ticket?
12. If you’re going to dance Argentine tango at one of the city’s many milongas, here are a couple of observations to keep in mind:
Tango Etiquette Rule #1: Nobody dances for the first thirty or forty seconds of a song. This is the time for polite small talk, to chat with your dance partner about the weather, or where you’re going out for dinner the following night. This brief period of socializing occurs at the beginning of every song. Only after an appropriate amount of chit-chat will dancing begin.
Tango Etiquette Rule #2: Women will not be asked to dance by one of the local gentlemen without first making eye contact.
Tango Etiquette Rule #3: More an observation than a rule, but, as a man, not only are you dancing with your lovely partner, you’re also dancing with the other four or five guys around you, humorous as that may sound. The dance floor is almost always packed, and if everyone is in synch, all is well. Although, if someone decides to show off his tango prowess at the expense of his neighbors, human bumper cars are the likely result.