It has been said that Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America. As someone who hadn’t been to either until recently, it seems more like Paris is the Buenos Aires of Europe. I arrived to the South American metropolis early on Sunday afternoon. Naturally, the bus terminal itself is something to behold. The boleterias of various bus companies that traverse practically everywhere in the southern half of the continent span for what seems like half a mile. I make sure I purchase my bus ticket to Montevideo before I leave to explore Buenos Aires, a bus I am to take the following night. I have roughly 30 hours in the Argentine capital and am eager to be on solid ground again after a night of stops and drug inspections.
On the walk from the bus terminal alone, one is struck by the city’s cleanliness and wide open spaces. Arriving on a Sunday affords me an ability to see the city in its infinite coolness. No businessmen strutting around in a rush, and next to no taxis honking their horns in workweek aggression. Just families strolling on sidewalks, couples embracing on benches, and the festivities and shopping of San Telmo.
If you haven’t heard of the neighborhood of San Telmo, and what happens there on Sunday afternoons, there is little I can do to prepare you. From Brooklyn to Berkeley, as you likely know, there exists in the intersection of the Western world and the Western Hemisphere an idea that it is civilized to sell things out in the street, to eat things in the street, and to generally have a good time in the street. The street is a common ground, a shared space, where a community interacts, communicates, and thrives, and so even in suburban America you will find your farmers markets, your block parties, and your festivals—more often than not—in the street.
Buenos Aires is no different, and when they do it, they do it big. After checking into my hostel, I wander south to see the charming neighborhood “El Caminito,” and accidentally stumble across the Sunday afternoon San Telmo market. At first, I just see a few stalls hawking rather interesting products. I had entered the part of street festival operated by El Aldoquin, an artist collective. This was not a place for 10-dollar “Niike” shirts, but rather a place for people with unique and interesting talents to display their work and hopefully sell some. As I walked, for what seemed like at least three miles, I saw no two stalls selling a similar item, and nobody selling anything I had seen before. I have intentionally refrained from posting photos of the street fair because the feeling of how overwhelming, how incredible, an how absolutely massive the festival is can hardly be captured in a word or a photo. For souvenir shoppers, you will likely find dozens of perfect trinkets, paintings, accessories, or clothes to remind you of your stay in Argentina. For non-souvenir shoppers, good luck making it out without buying something. As for those avid shoppers, good luck making it out alive. In the midst of buying and selling, all of which is done very personally and with sophistication, in the urban artist collective tradition, performers are giving puppet shows with marionettes on hand-painted stages, while bands play on acoustic guitars and washboards in ways that somehow don’t come off as “being ironic.”
Near the end of the tables selling hand-knit dog clothing, or hand-painted keychains that look like baby shoes, you come to a shop selling only dulce de leche in large jars, several of which are open for customers and non-customers alike to sample. Beyond that, there is an indigenous peoples’ district, a books and media district, and an assemblage of food trucks. And that’s not even the end. Parque Lezama, home to the city’s national history museum, punctuates the festivities like the dot at the end of an exclamation point. Here are your popcorn stands, food stalls, and countless tents where you can find all the aforementioned “Niike” T-shirts along with essentials like underwear, bras, hoodies and so on. It is as if a WalMart opened up an open-air market on Canal Street and, no matter what your opinions are of those two places, you cannot help but be impressed by the sheer scale of it all. As one of my favorite and most underappreciated quotes from Kevin Smith movies goes: “I love the smell of commerce in the morning” (Mallrats, 1995).
After being sufficiently overwhelmed, I continued south to see what I had come for in the first place: El Caminito. Once a neighborhood for artists, poets, and the like, El Caminito, or “the little road,” has always had a certain charm. Many of the buildings are painted in bright pink and yellows, and restaurants hire dancers to tango out front to attract customers. Meanwhile, sculptures and murals pepper the little road with even more charm, and the overwhelming feeling comes back. As I walked north, into the residential areas in the shadow of soccer stadium La Bombonera, I am able to recover my senses. I spent 30 hours in Buenos Aires. This does not mean someone should spend 30 hours in Buenos Aires. While I was visiting, the rapid inflation of the Argentine peso meant that necessities like food, water, and transport were all surprisingly cheap for a city as clean and gentrified as Boston or New York. In fact, most of the items I bought with my credit card went down in price by $0.10-$0.30 just in the time it took for the transactions to be posted to my account. For those of you who like to stay in decidedly more lavish places than $5 hostels, the savings will likely be even more substantial for you if the current trend persists.
Despite being able to treat myself in Buenos Aires, I largely abstained in the pursuit of prolonging my backpacking adventure as much as possible. Besides, since the city generally is an expensive one, I thought it would be much more interesting to see the inexpensive underbelly of the city. In Manhattan, for instance, the culture we often see on the surface is those of the incredibly wealthy. However, at the Starbuckses and independent coffee shops where Manhattanites happily drop upwards of $5 dollars on a coffee, there are workers who take the train into Manhattan every day to work in those overpriced coffee institutions. That is the culture that I seek to explore when I travel. Not the glamour and touristic allure of certain places, at least not entirely, but the way everyday people live and how.
One way Porteños (or people from Buenos Aires) get by is by finding cheap, creative ways of reinventing international favorites. It is no secret Argentina is known for its beef. However, this doesn’t mean beef is cheap in the country. If anything, I noticed that Argentinians loved beef, but most people could not afford to put meat on the table regularly. What appears to result are strange carb-heavy foods that someone, such as myself who originally believed Argentina to be a meat Mecca, would not associate with the country. A variation of bagels, for instance, can be found all over the city where lower-income people try to make ends meet by selling food. They appear to come in gigantic bags of perhaps hundred, and differ from bagels in that they are strictly baked and thus do not have the shiny outer crust.
Perhaps a more interesting (and some might say blasphemous) culinary tradition in Buenos Aires is faina on pizza. Faina is made of oil, water, and chickpea flour pressed into a heavy dough and pounded into the bottom of a pizza. Once baked in a pizza oven until cooked, the heavy disk is taken out of the oven, cut into slices like a pizza, and put on top of actual pieces of pizza to make it more filling. The kicker is that the most famous establishment selling this God-forsaken dish is called “Kentucky Pizza,” which begs the question: “Was there actually someone in Kentucky who made pizza this way, or did the pizza restaurant only take this name to sound more American, and thus more authentic (to obviously disastrous results, as there is no way there is good pizza in Kentucky)? Just as with the question of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, this is another food mystery that the world may never know the answer to. Though quite obviously an abomination under all that is holy, I stepped right up to the cashier under the neon Kentucky Pizza to place my order of a slice of pepperoni, a beer, and a faina to top it all off.
Interestingly, in much of South America, a draught beer is called a “Schopp,” after a now-archaic German word for measuring liquids. This comes from decades of German colonization of South America dating back to the 19th century. When I finish mine, after my faina and pizza, I hardly need to say how heavy I felt. The whole meal, which undoubtedly was almost 1000 calories of just carbs, ran me less than $4 USD, so I happily considered it a success in terms of eating a quintessentially Argentinian layman food for a good price, though I admit it is not something I will ever order again.
In the morning, my hostel was happy to stow my bag while I walked around Buenos Aires before my night bus to Montevideo. I awoke fifteen minutes before check-out after an 11-hour coma. I realized that the only other person who was supposed to sleep in my hostel room, which I got upgraded to for free after another room was overbooked, never showed. This hostel, based on the upgrade to what ended up being a single room with a private bathroom, had to be the best deal of the trip as it ran me barely more than $5. Here, I took two showers, one upon check-in and again after my afternoon of schlepping all over the city, just to enjoy the idea of a private shower. This is one of the simple luxuries one most misses when they mostly live in hostels.
After check-out, I decided I wanted to take part in one of the more popular culinary trends of Buenos Aires. A nation facing rapid inflation, it can be difficult to eat out at restaurants for cheap. That’s how the rising trend of “comida por peso,” or “food by weight” got started. The concept also has an added meaning of “food for little money,” the peso being the national currency of Argentina. Many of these pop-up take-away bars, which can be found practically every other block during the lunch hour, offer lavish buffets for people on budgets. Typically, they charge 150-300 pesos per kilogram (or $1.50 to $3 per pound), then extra for chips, drinks, and so on. I was able to get a large tray of food and a juice for less than 4.50, which beats just about any restaurant meal in the area, and certainly beats the Whole Foods hot bar at home. Not to mention, if you’ve been gorging yourself on meat and potatoes in your South American travels, as I have, this is a great way to finally get something green in your stomach and not have to worry about it’s safety, as much of the vegetarian options are cooked. Generally, “comida por peso” establishments offer plastic forks and indoor seating. However, for tourists looking to enjoy the city with the food, you can get the added benefit of eating your meal in any of the city’s quiet and pristine parks, provided the weather is nice.
One of the more intriguing free outdoor destinations you may want to visit, though not one you would likely want to have lunch, is the Recoleta: a veritable city of the dead packed with mausoleums of the important people and families of Buenos Aires. Eva Perón, the late First Lady, actress, and feminist, is interred here, though she may be hard to find (Hint: her maiden name is Duarte). The Indiana Jones in you may come out wandering through the old structures, many of which look as though they haven’t been touched in centuries.
After eating my comida in a park and visiting the recoleta, I strolled along the large park that separates Buenos Aires from the ocean. This area has many office building and, aside from the park and a couple of museums, is more of a photo opportunity. There, I was able to exchange some of my Argentine pesos into Uruguayan pesos, but the rate was far from fair. I assume that the falling Argentine peso has led many Argentinians to exchange some of their money into other currencies to soften their losses, as the office was fairly busy.
I went back to my hostel, unchecked my bags, and loitered there to charge my laptop and use their WiFi until around 5:30. My new mission was to get dinner, using all of my Argentine pesos, and get to my bus to Montevideo. I had enjoyed my comida por peso meal, and figured that the variability of the prices could work in my favor, as I only had about 250 pesos. I struggled to find one that was open at that time, however, and eventually caved, walking into a McDonald’s as I realized it was silly to try to find anything better than convenient fast food with two hours to spare before my bus. Nothing I wanted to order was under 250 pesos, so I decided to get something over 250 pesos and put the rest on my card, fearing more that I would have change leftover than that I would spend more than my peso allotment. This did not go as planned. Card after card got declined, and the girl behind the counter explained it was a problem they had exclusively with international Visa cards. Go figure. For some reason, that is all I have and I knew, long ago when I was applying for my travel rewards card, that it would come back to haunt me to not have a Mastercard and a Visa.
The rest of the night before my bus I spent buying completely random things with the now 52 pesos ($1.16 USD) I had left after a cheeseburger and soda. By the bus terminal, I bought a slice of pizza, which the restaurant owner gave me a discount on as it was the end of the day, which only infuriated me because it meant I had more pesos to spend. When I reached the gateway to the bus terminal, I found dozens of vendors selling those weird Argentine bagels, cookies, and kebabs. I tried to bargain with a man selling cookies at 1 for 10 pesos or 3 for 25 pesos, to let me have 1 for 9. Oddly, in this this flea market of cheap snack food, bargaining was not an option. In the pizza restaurant, and in many other places in town, vendors were happy to give me a discount or a special price because I was a tourist. From what I could gather, locals in Argentina pay a certain tax on certain goods and services that tourists don’t have to pay. As a result, all the menus and signs print the Argentine-price, and so when someone comes in speaking funny or else looking like a foreigner, they will often ask for a passport number in order to give them the foreigner price. Hotel rooms, the most significant of these taxed items, are 21% more expensive for Argentinians, and so tourists like myself are able to arrange incredibly cheap accommodation by simply showing a passport.
With these hidden discounts, and the inflation economy, Argentina is an incredibly tough place to be a citizen now. Almost daily, everything is getting more expensive and wages cannot keep up. This, I assume, is why it was difficult for me to get the guy to budge a single peso so that I could by a cookie for the road. Today, 10 pesos is $0.20 USD. Tomorrow, if it creeps down just a little lower, that could destroy the profitability of the man’s entire stock of cookies, and he might have to sell them for more. This becomes increasingly difficult when people are used to paying 10 pesos a cookie, and when everyone else’s life savings just crept down in value with the peso. This is why places like ‘comida por peso’ establishments are integral. They allow for people to eat for barely more than a home-cooked dinner would cost without having to invest the time into cooking. While I could have eaten steak dinners every night, I am glad I tried to experience Argentina in a way that more mimicked the everyday lives of current Argentines, rather than our perception of what Argentine life should be.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.