Greetings from South America! I arrived in Buenos Aires just over a week ago and have been busy exploring the big city. And it is a big city. A bit of a shock to the system after my time in tiny, laid back Costa Rica… but it's been a good shock. I do love visiting big cities. They have an energy that's contagious and that makes me want to get out and do and see everything. My first day, I did a hop-on-hop-off bus tour and covered the entire city in one (long) day. Over the next several days, I went back to some of the neighborhoods from more in-depth surveys. I toured the cemetery and old palaces in Recoleta, took a walking tour from the Congress to Plaza de Mayo and learned a bit about Argentine history and politics, toured Casa Rosada, went to the Evita museum, did a day trip to a cute town called Tigre about an hour north of BA, figured out the subway, bought bus tickets to my next stops (Bariloche and Mendoza), changed money on the black market (more on this in a moment), sampled empanadas from several different places... It was a busy few days! And then I came down with a cold. Probably a combination of the red-eye flight coming here and going at warp speed from the moment I landed. So the last couple days have been a little low key. A good chance to wind down and gear up for the next leg of my travel, which starts tomorrow afternoon with a 20-hour (yes - 20 hours!!!) to Bariloche.
I've learned a bit about Argentina during my time here in Buenos Aires. I learned that this country has quite a crazy history - lots of dictatorships, coups, and military leadership. The country has only been a democracy since the mid-80s, and given that there is really only one political party here, even that is loosy goosy. They are also still bitter about the Falkland Islands - but call them the Malvinas here, please. Their claim to them is still a topic of discussion and subject of several monuments and murals around here. And the economy here is in flux… to put it mildly. Inflation is rampant and prices on things can change weekly if not daily. The dollar is seen as a stable currency and is preferred to the Argentine peso as a means of trade, but the government has made it illegal for people to receive dollars from the banks. So, there is a "black market" on dollars. If I were to trade my dollars for pesos at a bank, I'd get about 8 pesos to the dollar. But on the black market, I can get 10-11 pesos to the dollar. It's not exactly legal, but no one is exactly paying attention. On Calle Florida, a main pedestrian street in downtown, tons of guys are shouting "cambio" to every gringo that walks by - meaning, they want to change pesos for dollars. When I arrived, I got the name of "a guy" who would change money for me. His "office" was a storefront downtown and the "business" was supposedly a small gift shop, but I doubt any business was taking place there other than money exchange. I handed over the dollars, he handed over the pesos (10.30 pesos to the dollar was the rate he gave me), and he led me to a little room where I guess I could count it and make sure it was all there? Check it to make sure it wasn't fake? I have no idea, but I acted like I knew what I was doing. I mean, I watched the Sopranos. I know about this stuff. At any rate, it all worked out. No Feds busted in with guns, and no one has looked questioningly at any of the bills I've handed them. (The largest denomination is a 100 peso note - the equivalent of $10. Are there larger denominations? Or does the black market trade only in small, unmarked bills? I'm not really sure. The currency here is perplexing. They have 2 peso notes - paper money that is worth 20 cents. And there is a 5 centavo coin - it's worth ½ a cent. Seriously? I'm carrying around probably half a pound of change that is worth a total of about $2.) Anyway, he got my dollars, and I got to buy bottles of malbec for the equivalent of less than $3. Win, win, I say.
Strange as it sounds, I'm looking forward to the bus ride tomorrow. (At least the first few hours of it - then I'm sure my tone will change.) I'm looking forward to seeing what's beyond the limits of the city. Buenos Aires is beautiful - amazing architecture, museums, parks and open spaces, neighborhoods with distinct vibes, and lots to see and do. But I have the sense that Buenos Aires is very different from the rest of the country. Everything here seems very… European. The buildings look like they came off postcards from Paris. A lot of the people here are fair-skinned and blue-eyed. Distinctly absent are Spanish colonial buildings and gauchos. I'll return to Buenos Aires for a few more days with Andrew in July. It will be interesting to see how the city seems on that return visit - after I've seen more of the country and when I can share the experience with Andrew. In the meantime, if any of you are wondering how you can visit Paris on a budget, I have a tip for you. Come to Buenos Aires.