Buenos Aires a Dud in 2023

Alternate Title: Argentina’s Long Decline is Palpable

The wife and I left the children with in-laws and escaped Peru to celebrate our 10th anniversary in Buenos Aires. This was my first visit since loving the city in 2009, and we were underwhelmed. Read to go home by Day 3. After promising her for years to take her to the Paris of South America, I don’t feel obliged to go again.

This experience made me think about why I liked BA so much the first time. In June 2009, I had little over a year in Latin America, the vast majority in the small city of Arequipa, Peru. Then I had moved to Bogota, Colombia, on a street that was crawling with zombie crackheads after 9 p.m. I was barely a sophomore in South America when I arrived in BA. I had the energy and thirst to prowl and cycle as much as I could to take it all in. After your first couple months in Bogota, you immediately notice this city is quite safe. How nice!

This time, we’ve been living in suburban St. Louis the last four years, so lack of zombie crackheads isn’t such a novelty. Visiting Chicago, New York and Philadelphia for fun, the size and scale of the city didn’t impress like it did after AQP and BOG.

The biggest difference that set this trip apart from last is I was broke then and now I’m not. When we can get away from the children, which is not often, we go for luxury. This time is worth more than money, and BA failed to impress in the luxury category. More on that later, but for a luxury vacation, I’d recommend Lima over BA. We should have gone to Sao Paolo or Santiago. BA is sad and broke.

Underwhelming Food

In 2009 I found a tenedor libre (buffet) with asado and pasta/crepe stations. Eating that every day, I started saying that I’d weight 150 kilos if I lived in BA. I was comparing Argentine food to Colombian food, the continent’s worst which is not fun to eat for most meals in the workweek.

Unfortunately those nice Argentine buffets have disappeared, at least the high-quality ones like I described. Now they’re greasy Chinese buffets with a small, dirty corner serving low-quality asado. We ate at one. I noted there were no white people (who didn’t work there), which is indicative in Argentina. I learned the good buffets perished due to a kind of shrinkflation, in which sky-high inflation reduces size and quality of goods and services instead of just raising the price.

The image above isn’t from that greasy buffet, but one of the best steakhouses in town. It looks great in the picture, and you hear expats who don’t live there year round drool about the steak. But most expats with serious time in country complain about the food, and now I know why. There wasn’t a grain of salt on that steak. Or anything else. It’s just meat cooked over fire. Sounds like an insignificant shortcoming, but try cutting salt and pepper from all your cooking. This restaurant, one of Palermo’s finest, had a crazy wait and casual, crowded atmosphere. Nothing luxurious.

The pastas weren’t bad. The problem is that I wasn’t comparing Argentina food to Colombian this time. I’m comparing it to American, and you don’t want to compete with the States on steak and pasta. You’re going to underwhelm. Argentine pasta isn’t that good compared to Italian-American eateries.

If the food was okay, better than Colombian to say something nice, the service was dreadful. I hadn’t experienced this last time because I only ate at the buffet. I didn’t know service could get much slower than what I knew in Peru, Colombia or Mexico. This was unbelievable. I learned you have to be beyond firm with Argentine servers. You have to be rude. I want the fucking bill now! Then tip generously because they don’t know any better. But if you want to get out of there, you have to be a dick. If not, dinner will be a two-hour affair. Nothing will be quick.

I wondered if Argentines are so broke that they need to get as much out of the dining experience as possible, so they draw it out beyond an hour for lunch/breakfast or two hours for dinner. I wondered if they’re just underemployed and don’t have anywhere else to go. I wondered if workers and businesses aren’t ambitious to make the most money possible and turn their tables. In other words, as all the expats say, they’re just lazy. I wondered if it’s a throwback to the Italian experience. Is foodservice in Italy this much slower than greater Latin America? I still don’t know the answer. But you have plenty of time to think about it.

Inflation Everywhere at All Times

Shrinkflation was the story of our visit. Everywhere we looked we saw low quality of life. The Argentines have a remarkable ability to downsize their lifestyle a little each year instead of making the difficult tradeoffs needed to become a vibrant economy again. After 14 years of accumulated shrinkflation, the city just felt like a drab shithole, albeit with beautiful European architecture.

Above is the microwave in our hotel room. I hadn’t seen a non-digital microwave since the 1990s. I don’t think you could find one of these in the must rundown hostel in all of Peru. The cheapest digital microwaves in Peru are too cheap to justify keeping one of these rotary dials around, and it’s unfathomable to have one in a hotel overlooking one of the city’s top tourist sites.

The air-conditioning unit was not quite as old, but partially broken. The temperature setting didn’t work, only full blast or off. The remote-controlled vents didn’t work either. I had to wake up in the middle of the night to manually close the vent when it got too cold, and again later to open them back up when it got too hot. This was the story with everything. Elevators, doors, key cards all obsolete from 20 years ago or more. Like going back in time.

I recently wrote about the Lima airport:

I made politically incorrect jokes to my wife like, “I feel like we’re going to see a couple dogs and chickens walking around in here.” The place is just bursting at the seams with people, dark brown provincial people who you didn’t used to see in the airports. And you can tell at every stage — when they go through security, when they board — that many of them have never been on a plane before. They don’t know how to do it.

The Lima airport wasn’t always like that. When I first arrived in 2008, I don’t think it was much different than any others in Latin America. But today it brings up memories from my 2009 visit to the Sicuani bus station. The airport can’t grow quickly enough to accommodate everybody. It’s actually a good problem to have, to have so many upwardly mobile people that infrastructure can’t keep up.

The BA airport was the polar opposite. It was actually pleasant, like being in a museum before opening hours. Quiet enough to hear a coin drop one hundred yards away, immaculately clean and no lines anywhere.

When I visited in 2009, I believe you got seven pesos to the dollar. This time, we got 350. But they haven’t gone crazy on printing bigger bills or dropping zeros, so the largest bills they had were 1000 pesos, worth less than $3. That requires that you carry more bills than will fold in your wallet. I carried billfolds held together by rubber bands, like gangsters in the movies.

The number of bills can confuse you. I wouldn’t say I was swindled, but I made an unforced error due to the nuttiness of all that monopoly money. On one taxi ride the wife was in my ear about getting back home and I had to have a pony, so I was in a hurry. The fare was about 900 pesos, but the outdated taxi meters (which nobody would have money to update) have four digits with a decimal, so it read something like 093.50. I was in a hurry so I counted out 10 bills and handed it to the driver, who brightened up and turned on the charm in English, “Thank you very much.”

“Todo alli?” I asked, because he didn’t count it.

“Yes,” he replied. I got out, turning that over in my mind for about five steps before realizing my mistake. Why didn’t he count? He only needed one bill. I paid about $30 for what should have been $3. Back in Peru, my father-in-law commented, “Ya no hay honrados en Argentina.” I didn’t say that I don’t think it would have gone down much differently in Peru. Even when your conscious of their goofy currency controls, they still get you somehow.

The bright side of inflation is cheap labor. Most taxi rides, even those that went half an hour, cost less than what a Lima taxi would even let you into his car for. We got massages for a forgettable amount. The wife’s masseuse was Venezuelan. She complained about Argentina, said she should have gone to Peru. She heard her compatriots are doing well there. I told the wife this illustrated why following a little economic news will steer you right in life. Or at least keep you from screwing up too badly.

BA is Not a Party Town

Our worst night was New Year’s Eve. BA was a ghost town. I’ve lived in Colombia, where the capital empties out for a month around Christmas. But in that country, less than a fifth of the population is from the capital (not so in Argentina). And Arequipa, where young party animals flock to the beach in the South American summer. But the city isn’t dead on New Year’s. And Medellin, where New Year’s is a family affair (in that den o’ sin they party balls on Christmas Eve).

I can understand a little subpar activity, but I wasn’t drinking and we weren’t looking to go dancing. We weren’t looking for rumba. We couldn’t find a place to eat! Or a taxi to take us somewhere. We walked almost two miles before finding a decent place that was open. The city was like the Walking Dead, but with no zombies.

We told people later and they try to defend the lack of activity by saying everybody with money goes to the beach. I don’t care. If you can’t get a taxi or find a nice dinner on New Year’s Eve, that’s just not a party town.

What was Cool?

I got this leather coat for just over $100 and the wife got a leather skirt. People back home guessed $500. That would be Calle Murillo in Villa Crespo.

One day was 92 degrees so we hit museums. Above is a painting of a typical gaucho, or Argentina cowbody, in the pampas. Museo de Bellas Artes is a world-class art museum thanks to the artists Argentina produced in the early- and mid-20th century. Palacio Barolo was a nice tour. Header image taken from the roof. I was surprised taxi drivers hadn’t heard of the place.

But like St. Louis, a wealthy past in BA left behind some cultural heft.

I thought I recorded more than this. Sorry.

During one our hourlong breakfasts, this group of starving artists played tango tunes on the patio. I believe they were fed free beer to attract customers. I found this curious because the restaurant couldn’t serve the tables they had. One couple, presumably tourists like ourselves, left after waiting too long to order. Why advertise when you’re at capacity?

But I enjoyed the music and, for just a moment, this group singing and dancing at the Sunday fair in San Telmo piqued my interest in the porteño soul. I wanted to stay, to live a little more of what BA had. Understand the place.

But after an hour for croissants, you get over it. You just want to leave.

Recoleta Cemetery was the tourist site our hotel overlooked. Wife enjoyed it. I would have liked it more if I hadn’t been to Lima’s Presbitero Maestro cemetery, which if comparing apples to apples should cost three to four times as much as its BA counterpart. Almost not fair comparison, not in the same league. It seems the BA people had a very limited space to put too many people in, so the tombs aren’t as grand and there isn’t enough space to see them. But it was OK.

I didn’t make it to the La Boca port district last time. Not as cool as Callao, but it was okay. I learned it’s dead on Sundays when we went, except for a few groups of undesirables still drinking from the night before. A tourist cop spoke impressive English.

There is a bright side to not being a big, happening city though. We didn’t see any real traffic for four days.

Jungle mess from 3:12 to 3:58

I enjoyed a tango show last year, but only learned this year that these are strictly tourist affairs. Like going up in the Arch in St. Louis. But it was probably the best entertainment we found. The city can’t afford to lose these. My only complaint was the addition of what seemed like an attempt to include indigenous Argentine music. It was a percussion affair with non-tango dancing of questionable origin. The tourists loved it because they don’t know any better. But we wanted our tango uncut. Most of the show delivered.

Hopium in Argentina

The newspapers were full of predictions that the population has tired of left-wing populism this time (again). They are going to vote for market reforms. If such a government can effect change, maybe things will improve.

If not, Argentina has some of the largest lithium reserves in the world. This rare metal crucial to electrifying energy in the age of climate change will at least be a resource curse to enjoy for a generation or three.

In fairness, part of our disappointment stems from our being camper-owning, fishing-license-renewing naturalists now. I’m getting older and don’t dig cities so much. Even if BA were a more happening town, it might not matter. I’m at the age where I want to get out of the city and into the wild, and this trip helped me realize that. If I had to go back to BA, I’d have to go to Patagonia. Maybe Mendoza.

Not fair? Convince me I’m wrong in the comments.


  1. Enjoyed reading it – verdict: Very fair.

    I was there in 2002 and 2006 and it’s charm was it’s ‘faded elegance’ (I even rode on that rickety Edwardian era wooden subway car they still had in operation in 2002) schtick and that it was very safe for a Latin American capital and what I loved was the Subte and the chatty taxi drivers who rounded down the fares! Though you wouldn’t get that in Lima – Lima is by far and away a nicer city and a city of the future. The Costa Verde barrios were nice, clean, modern with malls, shops, top class restaurants – even Surquillo is looking more and more plush these days!

    The Buenos Aires of today is nowhere near as good as the Buenos Aires of 2002 and 2006 and apparently crime has gone through the roof – Lima sits on the Pacific and faces China and Asia Pacific – it has a future, Buenos Aires is an Atlantic city and faces Europe – it doesn’t have a future, it has a past that it clings on to for dear life but it’s uses are running out real fast.

    A mate of mine was in Rio for awhile and says something similar about it – once you get past the shirtless posers running up and down Lebon beach then the rest of the city is dirty and crime ridden but like Buenos Aires – it peaked with Europe when they had their empires.

    The South American cities of the future are going to be Lima and Santiago. Buenos Aires will always have a place on the itinerary list though though time has to catch up where you have to move on from what you once was and for fucks sakes clean up all that dog shit on the pavements – there’s no need for it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll be honest in saying your review sounds like a slightly worse version of how I remember Buenos Aires but nothing out of the ordinary.

    It’s kinda funny though that nowadays Buenos Aires has gotten a lot of attention among digital nomads/expats/whatever because of how fucked their currency is and how relatively cheap it is. You see a lot of interest on Twitter about that place.

    I was there in 2015 and 2016.

    Mostly Buenos Aires and some side trips to Corrientes, Misiones, Patagonia, etc.

    My biggest complaint I had was that the metro cards I bought never worked. And nobody believed me! Friends started thinking I was crazy when I said “it won’t work” but any metro card I did use eventually stopped working. Must’ve been a conspiracy from Peron to fuck with me.

    Food wise? I actually have good memories of that. I very much enjoyed the food in Argentina.

    Especially the steaks and empanadas.

    Only complaint was that the pizzas were shit.

    For a country of so many Italian immigrants, you’d think they’d get pizza right. Where is Mario when you need him?

    Checks? I agree but I’m used to it in Latin America. I remember it being worse in Argentina.

    I always joked that, in Mexico, you’d need to chuck the fork or knife at the waiter and hope it hits him in the eye. Only way you are getting service.

    In Argentina? Impossible. Because he’s not within distance to hit him. The waiter is back in the kitchen fucking his cousin. Pobrecitoooooo

    Some fella on Twitter named Kyle went to Buenos Aires recently. I think he’s still there. He put out a tweet recently about having to put in the effort just to get the god damn check lol.

    Inflation? I remember very well how a Subway sandwich (of course I eat American food abroad) was something like 80 pesos when I first showed up and then was over 120 pesos a few months later.

    Back then, to get a better conversion rate, you had to go to Florida street where people were yelling CAMBIO everywhere.

    The official rate was something like 15 pesos a dollar but the blue dollar rate was a bit more and had to be exchanged in some sketchy looking room lol.

    Patagonia is nice anyhow.

    If you got more than a month to kill, I’ve heard Bariloche is good for that.

    But if short on time and you like hiking, Calafate/Chalten is your best bet. I really liked that area,

    Funny you mention the tango being a tourism thing.

    I remember well that Argentine gals I met up with didn’t know shit about it. Not how to dance or anything.

    Honest question: was that microwave taken in a nice hotel room? How nice was the hotel? Is that what you’d really expect to see in something nice?

    I couldn’t imagine they’d have that in a real 4 or 5 star hotel. But I haven’t been in Argentina in a long time and Latin America akways surprises me. Kinda funny to look at.

    It’s funny you bring up the “going back in time” comment. Cuba is the country most people associate with that. But generally Latin America as a whole has some effect to that.

    Not just in outdated technology but also in terms of culture, lack of wokeness, etc. It’s always a steep behind the US in the same way that, in some ways, the US is a step behind the more developed part of Europe.

    Would that leather coat really cost 500 in the US? I haven’t stepped foot up there in years but crazy to think how prices are these days up there.

    Buenos Aires a ghost town during New Years? That’s a typical comment too a lot of gringos make about their respective city in Latin America. There are small little events to enjoy during those days but it’s true.

    Above all, your review is pretty fair from how I remember things. It’s what you experienced anyhow.

    If I was to go back to Argentina, I’d skip Buenos Aires too. The city is perfectly fine but not that interesting to me.

    Funny they call it the Paris of Latin America. I’ve been to Paris too but didn’t give a fuck about it.

    I like big city living — even in the ghettos — but have a great appreciation for nature.

    If I was to go back to Argentina, I’d also stick to Patagonia. So much to see there (especially if you mix it with Chile).

    Thanks for the article, Colin

    Take care


    1. You know, hotel is the one area where we’ll go middle class, not four- or five-star. Moving forward I think we will. This one was over $100 per night across the street from Recoleta Cemetery. So a well-heeled part of town. Just kind of a sad shell of what could be. I screwed up by booking online, another way they get you even when you know about currency controls. I guess in my head I assumed they factored in the screwy controls before pricing online. I don’t think so. I think you wait till on the ground and book in pesos.


  3. I wrote a big economic report on Argentina in November 2017 just after Macri had won big in the midterms. I sort of knew it already but I was amazed at the potential in soy, cattle, grains, copper, lithium, gas, renewables, biotechnolorenewable, etc. The country really is a sleeping economic superpower. But 2 years later Macri was out.

    Argentina needs 2 terms of macroeconomic sanity to start making progress but the peronist nutters are just too strong. The opposition will win this election but they’ll be ousted by some populist nonsense in 4 years time and it will be back to square Minus One.


    1. The expats I know are equally pessimistic. All expats get together and gripe a little about the locals, but those in BA seem to be in a league of their own. No confidence. So strange, given the intellectual and artistic legacy. Once upon a time The Economist did a piece on Italy vs. Spain, saying the former should be like the latter. Maybe the Italian holds AR back.


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