Buenos Aires: What They Don’t Mention in the Tourist Guides

I turned 23 while living in Buenos Aires. It was the first time I was exposed to living in a not-so-capitalist country with a heavy variety of regulation but less security for its citizens. I’d never encountered such a dichotomy. I’d been used to much more capitalist economies from the Dominican Republic to Europe to New York. Although beautiful, diverse, educated, and vibrant with culture, I was taken aback by the not-so-glamorous qualities of actually living and working in Argentina. As a form of therapy, I took to writing about the things that shocked me about living in Buenos Aires.

This is the recollection of my culture shock and why I didn’t like Buenos Aires, upon realizing the unromanticized qualities of living in this South American city.

Environmental Problems in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires literally translates to “good air” in Spanish. This was ironic because the air quality in Buenos Aires gave me 3 upper respiratory infections in 2 months. The thick black clouds of smoke puffing out of automobiles and potholes, along with the constant stench of sulfur seeping into subways cars and the windows of my 12th-floor apartment, had me questioning if there was any enforcement of environmental policies in Buenos Aires. Luckily, however, pharmaceutical regulations were as lax as the environmental policies, so I was able to self-medicate myself back to health with medicine that would have been controlled through prescriptions in the U.S.

Argentina’s Rampant Inflation & Unreliable Currency

When I first arrived, I was greeted by the remis half of which I was warned would drive me around the same block to run up the meter or take the slowest streets possible if they sensed I was a foreigner. So I put on my most neutral Spanish accent, and being Dominican, it took some effort. But alas, the Argentine accent is anything but neutral. So as I arrived at my destination, my driver asked where I was from. The age-old question that I can never answer simply. This time, I just settled for simply Dominican and handed the driver some bills to which he grimaced, explaining he didn’t have enough change and handed me back some hard candy as change.

The strange coin shortage is the least of inflation-infested Argentina’s problems. The menu prices in restaurants are constantly being crossed out and scribbled over with a higher price due to their volatile currency.

Today, most Argentine’s are forced to live at home with their parents because their currency faces constant devaluation, causing landlords charge in U.S. dollars. This doesn’t bode well when their salaries remain constant with a devaluing peso.

Buenos Aire’s High Cost of Living & Lack of Resources/Free Trade

Soon after arriving at my Couchsurfer‘s hospice, I was starving. Like a true American, I sought out the instant gratification of a hot meal. Upon walking for over an hour, searching for a hot meal in this neighborhood, I quickly learned that it was easier to buy simple ingredients and cook at home. Good restaurants were very expensive, even by American standards. But even buying things to cook at home was also tricky.

My entire life, I was spoiled by supermarkets that offered an abundance and variety of food to buy. I was used to waltzing into a store and seeing an entire aisle with almost any type of everything. In Buenos Aires, the collections were much smaller and the “good stuff” had a high markup due to Argentina’s heavy importation taxes. The more affordable good stuff like cheese in the corner bodega-like stores, I was told to be wary of due to a local rumor that the corner stores shut down their refrigerators at night to save money. It was the first time in my life, where I was faced with scarcity. And it was quite the lesson for this Dominican-American, about living in a not-so-capitalist country.

Before coming here, I ignorantly thought, I’m headed for South America, why pack much? I’ll be rich with my dollars and go shopping there! Stupid 22-year old. The inflation rates in a country crippled by pseudo-socialist policies and strong protectionist tax rates have actually led many Argentines to travel to the U.S.A to go shopping and still come back saving money despite spending so much on a visa, flight, and hotel!

Traveling within the country was extremely difficult. Coming from a heavy capitalist society where competition is through the roof and I can take a $20 Megabus to Vermont or a $180 flight to the Caribbean, I was dumbfounded to find out it would cost $200 USD (a round-trip flight from New York to California) to take a bus to another city in Argentina! How do the locals afford anything? I wondered.
As the Argentine winter (in July) grew harsh, I was forced to buy a winter coat. I couldn’t find a warm coat for under $200 dollars. In the U.S., I can go to TJ Maxx or Old Navy and buy a high-quality warm coat for $50. But due to their strict policies to discourage foreign importation, when I did find anything I would get at Target or Walmart, it was usually 5 times the price of what I would have normally paid! What a harsh realization to notice the privilege I’ve grown up in, and how others lack access to buy low-cost but high-quality resources. I ended up with what seemed like a mass manufactured cheaply made-in-China $20-looking-coat. It coat cost me $125 and it ended up ripping on me a month later.
So I learned to live without the abundance of luxuries I realized I didn’t need. It was a new concept to me, but I appreciated the lesson on living a less consumerist-driven life. I stopped feeling the false sense of needing to buy things or go shopping. Coming back from Argentina, was the first time I traveled abroad and my bank account remained almost the same.

Safety in Buenos Aires, Argentina

So after hopelessly dragging myself around the malls and shopping stores trying to find a coat, I witness a mugging by two men who then hopped on a motorcycle and trampled over an old lady as they violently drove off into the sunset. I left the Bronx for this? I thought, bitterly.

A few weeks later, my roommate’s friend was held at gunpoint in El Bario Norte which is suppose to be one of the safer neighborhoods. They took everything away from him on his way to the airport. When they asked that he hand over his passport, he pleaded with them and they responded with a bullet. Years later, I’m still haunted by this story.

Usually, the benefit of a country with so many regulations and protectionist policies is security. Some form of safety from constantly being controlled by the government. But Buenos Aires seemed to have all the cons and none of the pros from this type of control.

Health Problems in Argentina: A Meat-Lover’s Destination

Maintaining a pescatarian diet in a country that hails red meat began to take a toll on my health. I take full responsibility for waltzing into a country that subsists red meat. As a vegetarian, this was definitely my bad. I found the first few months difficult to find as many plentiful vegetarian options as I was afforded in other cities.

My first time buying spinach involved what seemed like a sketchy transaction with a corner store man who did not speak Spanish or English. I eventually found giant chain supermarkets, that offered more options even if they were more expensive. And a month later, I would find a small bodega-like store nearby with really cheap vegetables. It became my go-to place!

Fish just wasn’t easy to come by even though we were by the water. I have lived, worked and traveled to over two dozen countries from Santo Domingo to Morocco. All major meat-eating countries where I was fine as a pescovegetarian. I eat seafood, eggs, and cheese. But eventually, Argentina brought an end to my decade-long vegetarianism/pescetarianism. This was a small taste of life in a pseudo-socialist country. Where options are minimal, and the option to tailor your diet is a luxury.

Classism and Racism in Argentina

Now, this is an incredibly underrated issue in every Latin American country I have visited. At least in the U.S. and Canada, there is more awareness and shame of being racist and classist. But in Latin America, it is not chastised as much. Many I spoke to, denied being Latino or having any indigenous South American descent. Some would tell me I was Latino/Hispanic, but they were not because their great, great ancestors came from Italy or Germany. It was quite baffling to see this sort of shameless distaste for being South American by South Americans. As in most parts of the world, I also noticed that race and class were strongly connected here too. White people are treated nicer and get better jobs, pay, and opportunities. Because I had darker features, I was labeled morocha in Argentina That’s when I wondered, did so many Argentine women dye their hair blond and drown it in Keratin (a chemical application that straightens hair) to escape this morocha complex?

My Peruvian roommates recounted some of their traumatic experiences of being kicked out of cabs for being Peruvian, more than once. Discrimination against Peruvians, Bolivians, and Paraguayans apparently is not uncommon in Argentina. Not cool.

If you think I’m being overly negative, I’ll leave you with this last tidbit: there is a too common Argentine saying that refers to people as being black as an insult.

Sexism and Machismo in Argentina: Beware the Street Harassment

The street harassment from men, even when I resembled a sickly zombie, was relentless. The sound men made to get my attention on the sidewalks, from their cars, out of windows, on the train, resembled the noise one makes to get a cat or dog’s attention. I was expected to put my head down, look away, and keep walking as if it were not happening. If I accidentally made eye contact I was inviting them to say or do more. When I responded by declining their advances, they insulted me. My French roommate politely asked them to leave her alone, the man responded by shouting obscenities as he biked around us in circles.
One night, I went on a triple date in Buenos Aires (and no not with one of my street harassers). These guys did not hold back their intense sexual innuendos. I wondered, maybe the common portrayal of American/European women traveling the world and engaging in sex tourism had fueled their aggression or maybe it was the cultural norm for men in Argentina? To charm us further, they blatantly expressed their disdain for the U.S. and continuously mocked American culture. After they finished bashing the U.S., they went on to tell us about their favorite foods, bands, TV shows, and movies: every single one of them was American.

Is it Me? Why Am I so Negative?

I wondered, is it me? Am I being overly negative? Perhaps it’s this frigid cold weather and the lack of sunshine for almost a year now. Doesn’t every country have problems like this in some way? No. Not in this combination which particularly threw me off. And it also wasn’t just me. There were members of my exchange program who had changed their flights to leave earlier out of disappointment.

This is not an attack on the Argentine people. There are lots of wonderful Argentine folks, some whom I’m still in touch with today. Just because I’m pointing out qualities that shocked me so that others may not suffer through the same shock does not mean I ignored the positive aspects of Buenos Aires: the delicious wines, the incredible Krakow bar my uncle worked in, the cool architecture, the pretty markets, my discovery of Argentine brie cheese, yerba mate outside of Buenos Aires, the high levels of education among the Argentine youth…

Also, note that I wasn’t in Buenos Aires lavishly spending money and only doing the tourist trail for a week. I was living and working here, immersed in the local way of living.

Conclusion

Maybe this was more than culture shock. Maybe it was a reality check to life outside of capitalism and more racial diversity. But either way, I got a closer look at the realities of living in Buenos Aires, which I was not warned about in any of the romanticized travel guides. I’d also like to note that I absolutely loved Mendoza and many other parts of Argentina outside of Buenos Aires… I’m still incredibly grateful for my experience in living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It opened my eyes and enriched my perspective of the world a little better, even if it stung.

Buenos Aires exposed me to a different side of how the more developed (but still developing) world lives. I will never forget the life lessons I learned in Buenos Aires. My work in international taxation propelled my career in the U.S.A. Since Argentina plays a key role in the world economy, especially in finance, I worked with coworkers throughout Latin America (including Buenos Aires) who I was able to better connect with thanks to having lived in Argentina. One day, I would like to go back to experience it without the culture shock… and in their summer time.
Buenos Aires

13 thoughts on “Buenos Aires: What They Don’t Mention in the Tourist Guides

  1. Anacostia says:

    Morocha is a compliment and about the vegetarian thing we have a lot of verdulerias stores (in some places one per block) so you can buy vegetables for a really good price.

    • G. Isabelle says:

      You might love it then. Because you’ll go in fully prepared, whereas I was not. Argentina is super racist, you may be regarded better than I was with your features. But still, just be safe. 🙂 And this is only about Buenos Aires. I hear great things about other parts of Argentina. Cheers 🙂

  2. Becci Abroad says:

    I know this post is a couple of years old but I got this thing for reading what people think for Buenos Aires… Well, just because it is interesting. I think you (once again) hit it right on the spot. Even though, things have improved, and, in my opinion, if the current government stays in power, will continue to improve. Haha, the rumors of the “corner bodega-like stores” as you call them or the “chicos” as the porteños call them, is still going on – and true! I checked it for myself and walked into a store just when they open in the morning, you can actually feel that the stuff in the refrigerators isn’t as cold as it should be.

    Luckily, safety has improved a lot! And I have only very few times felt unsafe in BA – though, you hear the stories, right…

    So, so true about the race/racism issue in Argentina. It was also a very hard part for me (even being white European) getting used to this hard tone. However, there is also a fact (not justifying the racism at all) that there are huge problems with certain immigrant groups and crime, and that Buenos Aires (and Argentina in general) perhaps have accepted way more immigration from other countries without enforcing these people to comply with the law – either by letting them be illegal immigrants or by not throwing them out when they committed crime. According to what I hear, this has made Argentines very tired of certain groups. Generally, I believe that if you as an immigrant prove the Argentines wrong in their stereotypes, they are actually willing to embrace us. In the business where I work (Argentine owners and managers), we are, for example, starting to hire more and more Venezuelan. Over and over again the Venezuelans have proven us to be reliable and hardworking. Whereas, we have stopped doing business with Colombians because over and over again, we tend to have issues and losing time and effort when dealing with them. Of course, things might have changed since you were here but my best advice is properly to give your very best as an immigrant, and especially a Latin American one (even though it is unfair) due to the above-mentioned to help fight these stereotypes that the Argentines have.

    The gender part is very interesting because even though it still does exist, it is not nearly as bad as the harassment I experienced in Cuba. Seems like they learned something over the years? Or maybe I’m just so terrifying that they general not dare saying anything to me 😉

    Sorry for this super long comment 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Isabelle says:

      Hey! I just saw this. So I wrote this a loooong time ago when I was really angry in my internship office on a freezing cold rainy day in Buenos Aires LOL. I just went back in to edit it a little better. Especially after having traveled to other socialist/authoritarian/communist countries.

      Haha, then I’m glad I never ate their cheese! Though I did find some GREAT brie cheese in Buenos Aires. I give them tons of credit for that.

      Venezuelans are getting tons of success everywhere thanks to 1) they are white 2) they came from socialist/free education. So like Cubans, when they make it out of their country they hit the ground running. They’re also killing it in the Dominican Republic too. But racism in Argentina is some of the worst in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve never heard “negro de mierda” thrown around so much before in my life. And I’ve never met Latinos that deny they’re Latino. That was insane. It’s particularly horrible because it’s coupled with classism which IMO we don’t have (to that degree) in the United States. In the U.S., if you’re poor but working hard people admire you… It’s part of the “American Dream.” In Latin America, it’s almost like a caste system…

      And I edited this post to remove it was the worst street harassment I’ve ever experienced… Because that award now goes to Cuba. LOL…

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      • Becci Abroad says:

        I know you wrote it a long time ago – which just makes it even more interesting for me to read even though you say you wrote it in a bad mood 😉 Things change so quickly here!

        I get your point about racism, and I completely agree; it is very bad in Argentina (at least if you are used to the European way of thinking like me and the US way like you). I’m starting to study Argentine history and politics more closely at the moment, and this “caste system” as you name it, is something you can track way back in history, so it is going to be very hard to change… Maybe in the future?

        I agree Venezuelans have certain benefits. Thus, not everybody is white. The guys I work with and know are all pretty colored (they could go for Cubans) 😉

        Hahaha! SO true! Cuba takes the prize for catcalling.

        It was good fun to read along!

      • Gabriela Carolina Villarroel says:

        I enjoyed your post a great deal, having experienced Buenos Aires myself I think you hit the right points without being overtly bias. As a Venezuelan woman I was excited to see us being mentioned in the comments, however your 2 point explanation for our success is one thing I really did have to stop and squint at. Having read your material this seemed uncharcteristically narrow minded, with that in mind I know you’re open to my correcting a few things.
        1) We are absolutetly not “all white” If there is one thing I take pride in is the celebration of racial diversity in my country. I am ‘morena’ I have curly hair, mixed features, above all I am a mix of a hundreds of years of diversity (Sure enough there’s some european influence there, but that is the case in most South American countries.) we have indigenous communities throughout the country, we have a history of arabic immigration, afro-latinos, festivals celebrating african communities such as the people of our town ‘Barlobento.’ But honestly most of us call ourselves ‘criollos’ because we’re mixed to the point of not knowing exactly what we are, but we do know we are proud of it. This is the case
        for most venezuelan men and women.
        2) We do not all come from a Socialist “free” education. Socialism only came in 1999 with Chavez, and with the present state of the country I dare say the policies were only ever disguised as ‘socialist’ when really it was corrupt. The lack of quality of such education forced many families to work for private educations. I will concede however that our higher education systems (universities specifically) were some of the best in their time, and this gave many venezuelans being forced to migrate now the priviledge of taking a degree with them- though unfortunately many cannot exercise their careers now. I hope this is honestly informative, I truly did enjoy your writing and have no intention of giving offense, just educating and preventing future generalizations.

        • Isabelle says:

          Oh wow thank you for these insights! It was informative. Apologies for my over-generalizing words. I should have worded it more carefully by using “most” or “some” before certain claims.

  3. Bob says:

    While most of your specific observations are spot-on, forgive me but your overall conclusions are chock-full of offensive generalizations, subjective biases, and downright ridiculous fundamental assertions. If you had originally intended to do a hack job on Argentina and just paint this overtly negative picture of the country, you should be pleased to have done your job. Congrats–or something…

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