A Letter from Buenos Aires

Following is a slightly modified version of an email sent to my former supervisor in Perth. Her next assignment will be in Buenos Aires beginning February.

After sending the email I received news that my former supervisor is now in Buenos Aires on an advance visit and we will meet this weekend!

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Greetings from Buenos Aires!

I have been here studying Spanish for almost four weeks. Learning the language is challenging but each day I am having small victories. Argentinians generally speak quickly and their dialect has some unique pronunciations and vocabulary, not that I have any previous exposure to Spanish. Not knowing the language is frustrating, but it is a frustration I am working on! Many people know some English but fluency is not common generally.

I came to Argentina at an exciting and historic time – only a few days into the new Argentine presidential term. After 12 years of rule by “Peronist” presidents, opposition candidate Macri unexpectedly won the 2015 election, much to outgoing president Kirchner’s dismay. Kirchner had already served the maximum eight years as president and was desperately hoping her party’s candidate Scioli would win.

President Macri has already made at least one significant change for foreigners (and locals): floating the Argentine peso. Previously, the peso was artificially pegged to the United States dollar. This combined with limits on how much hard currency locals could access led to a “blue rate” for the USD (and euro and Brazilian real) offered by illegal but tolerated currency exchange businesses. When I arrived here in December, the blue rate was ~15 pesos to the USD or 50% higher than the official rate of just under 10 pesos. Now the peso has been floated, the rate has stabilised between 13 and 14 pesos to the dollar. Although the rate is now similar to the official rate, as hard currency is not easy to obtain for many locals, there is still a blue market. Argentina has a history of high inflation (it is currently ~40%) and I understand major transactions such as house sales are undertaken in USD. This will ensure the blue market remains for the foreseeable future.

On a practical basis, the peso floating has made life much easier and/or cheaper for foreigners. Instead of needing to bring hard currency and changing it on the blue market for better value, we can now receive a fair rate via withdrawals from ATMs. Prior to the floatation coming into effect, I received ~7 pesos per AUD when withdrawing from an ATM. Now it is ~9.5. On the matter of ATM withdrawals, it appears the absolute withdrawal limit is 2,500 pesos in each transaction, sometimes much less. One can make multiple withdrawals although you are likely to receive a large fee (79 pesos!) for each transaction. I’m very happy my Citibank card does not incur fees for withdrawals at Citibank ATMs (Citibank have many branches banks here).

The Argentine peso also uses the “$” denotation which may be confusing at the start.

The currency and import restrictions and duties have had several effects. Many imported items like electronics are unavailable or very expensive. In supermarkets most items are made in Argentina and many of the prices are not too dissimilar to Australian prices even though salaries are far lower here. There is no hard and fast rule regarding prices. A coffee at a restaurant can cost 40 pesos (~AUD4) but to catch the bus from my place to the language school costs only 3.25 pesos (~AUD$0.35). Receiving goods ordered from foreign stores like Amazon for delivery to Argentina is almost impossible so don’t bother.

Beef, empanadas, sweet pastries and cheesy pizza feature heavily at Argentinian restaurants and bakeries. What doesn’t feature heavily is hot chilli! Some may call the cuisine bland. don’t expect to easily find restaurants serving good foreign cuisine. The garlic grown locally is to die for though, the basil is great, and, at a private home I ate the best steak in the world. Argentines, particularly in Buenos Aires, eat dinner very late. On my first night I went to a ‘Mexican’ restaurant with my host. We arrived after 8pm and the place was empty – why? Because it was too early! 9-10pm is the norm and I have finished dinner after midnight during the week. Even then there is still life on the street. The dense population sustains a busyness and convenience far removed from Perth.

I live in the inner-city suburb of Recoleta. It is a great location, equidistant between downtown and Palermo, Buenos Aires’ centre of entertainment. Recoleta is a relatively wealthy, safe and clean part of town. I am near major monuments and parks and the suburb has a European feel. Indeed, Buenos Aires has been called the Paris of the south. I mention relatively wealthy, safe and clean because they are not in the same ballpark as Perth. Years of economic turmoil have led to a visibly large homeless population (although a fellow student from the San Francisco Bay Area said there are more homeless there). When on the street, be aware of the dog droppings, air conditioner drips and uneven footpaths. Buenos Aires also has a reputation for pick pockets and other street crime so be alert and don’t show off your valuables.

The traffic is bad and safety is not the highest concern. I understand jay walking is legal here and many people don’t wait for the signal before crossing. Following health and safety best practice in Buenos Aires is extremely difficult.

The weather in summer is warm to hot and humid. Some days feel oppressive but the evenings are fantastic. January is the hottest month of the year.

To read different opinions on life in Buenos Aires as a foreigner and to understand local topics of interest, I recommend visiting the http://BAExpats.org forum.

I will leave Buenos Aires later in January to travel around the country including south to Patagonia. However, in following months I will return to Bs As (as the locals abbreviate the city’s name to) so look forward to seeing you and the family then. I update my blog at http://joe.in regularly although I am still catching up on Brazil.

Warm regards,
Joe