Argentina is a country of endless natural beauty, delicious food, excellent wines, and warm welcoming people, but it is also a developing country with all the associated growing pains. Even though Buenos Aires is deservedly called the Paris of South America, rapid urbanization has created dangerous slums right next to its posh skyscrapers. So in this article I want to share some safety tips with other prospective voyagers to the land of tango and malbec. Follow this advice and you will have a great time in Argentina.
Money Matters: Cash is king but plastic is more convenient and ethical. (In this article $ refers to Argentine Pesos)
Most ATM machines will dispense up to $1000 at a time for a $16 commission. During weekends and holidays many ATMs will run out of cash and will not be restocked until the next business day. Therefore you should always monitor you cash levels and stock up before the weekend or if you plan on traveling outside of urban centers where ATMs are scarcer. FYI, some of the trendiest bars and restaurants do not accept credit cards. The $100 bills you just got from the ATM are nice and crisp and easy to fold in your wallet. Not so fast. You will need change if you want to make small purchases or pay for a taxi. Break one of the big bills as soon as possible and make sure you always cary change for $100. Argentine bills come in denominations of $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. It has happened to me that a taxi driver didn’t even have change for a $50! Also, watch out for counterfeit bills. The recognition guide above should prove helpful (click to enlarge).
Coins are a scarce commodity, especially if you plan on using public transportation. Watch out for counterfeit $1 coins, not because of their value, but because they will be rejected by ticketing machines and cause you unnecessary embarrassment if you end up holding up the line. The silvery outer ring of counterfeit coins is just a thin coating that in most cases has worn off around the edges. Then again if you have no intention of getting on the subway or a public bus, feel free to leave coins as tips. Speaking of tipping, it is completely optional. If you get really good service you can leave around 10%, but only if you feel like it.
Most places accept the three major credit cards, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, in that order. In fact the Argentine government would prefer that you pay with plastic because it is traceable so the shopkeeper cannot tax evade. Many small businesses will usually offer an off-the-record 10%-20% discount for paying in cash. Sounds like a great deal right? What they are really doing is subtracting the sales tax, or value added tax, which is 21% for most items in Argentina. So if a business offers you less than a 20% discount for a cash payment they are ripping you off as well as their country. If you are a proponent of ethical or responsible tourism and are faced with a discount for paying in cash, you should pay with a credit or debit card.
A note on safety while using your credit or debit card: if the waiter or clerk asks to see your ID or passport, show it to them but do not let it leave your hands. Otherwise you run the risk of identity theft which is something you really do not want to deal with on your vacation. The only exception to this is your hotel which is obligated to maintain a copy of your passport for the authorities. And remember, if you have a choice between using a credit card or a debit card, it is always best to use the credit card because you can dispute unauthorized transactions. If you lose control of your debit card it is much more difficult and stressful to get you money back.
Shopping: What you see is not always what you get.
Money matters aside, when you are shopping make sure that what you are paying for at the checkout counter is what you actually intended to buy. Sometimes mistakes happen. Sometimes the display model does not correspond to what is in the box. So depending on what you are purchasing, check for damage, expiration date, size and model to ensure everything is in order before leaving the store. If you are buying a service such as a massage or a tour of the city, make sure the terms are clear for you may end up paying extra for something you thought was included.
Getting Around: Having tried all modes of terrestrial conveyance in Argentina I solidly recommend taxis or chauffeur (remis) services.
Renting a car in Argentina is not only ridiculouslyexpensive but also extremely stressful if you are a civilized law-abiding driver. There is zero respect for the traffic laws in Argentina, period. Traffic lights and stop signs are completely disregarded entities while right of way, staying in your lane, and signaling before turning are unknown concepts. You do not want to get into any type of accident, even if it is not your fault, even if it is just a fender bender. The bureaucracy will swallow your vacation whole and spit out a bitter memory to take back home with you. Not to mention that your rental might get broken into or vandalized. Many rental agencies will try to charge you for pre-existing damages if you did not bother to do an extremely thorough (and well documented) joint inspection before accepting the vehicle. Do you still want to rent a car in Argentina?
Public transportation is the cheapest (and I mean dirt cheap) way of getting around. In Buenos Aires you can take a city bus, train, or subway for about $1 per person, depending on your destination. If you don’t mind the filth, lack of safety standards, unreliability and unpredictability of service, and the risk of being pick pocketed, then public transportation is a great option. You should at least take a ride on the oldest subway line that still uses a wooden train!
Taxis and chauffeur services, called remis, are the best option I can recommend. But there are pitfalls here as well. You should always ask the front desk, restaurant, bar, or whatever establishment you are frequenting, to call a car for you. You can also ask how much the ride should cost so you don’t end up getting ripped off. Then you can sit back and relax and they will inform you when your car arrives to pick you up. In urban areas such as Buenos Aires your best bet is a radio taxi, even if you are stopping a cab on the street. Radio taxis belong to companies that are usually on the up and up. Avoid shabby looking taxis with shady looking drivers.
When you’re walking around, keep these two things in mind and you will have no problems. First, vehicles do not respect pedestrian crosswalks; even if there is a traffic light. Cars will make a turn driving through a pedestrian crosswalk without looking or slowing down. The law of the jungle applies so always look left and right and cross with caution. Second, petty crime such as pick pocketing is common. If you have valuables in a knapsack, wear it with the pouch in front of you. I also recommend creating a throwaway fake wallet if you plan to visit some of the seedier areas of a city to see authentic tango milongas. Just take an old wallet and fill it with fake credit cards, useless receipts, expired membership cards and a wad of small denomination bills.
Exploring Argentina: Guided tours are the way to go.
I really enjoy wandering around new cities and discovering their secrets on my own. But in Buenos Aires it might not be the safest thing to do. As I previously mentioned, there are pockets of dangerous neighborhoods all over the city and it isn’t hard to stumble into one of them by accident. The most efficient way to get to know Buenos Aires or any other part of Argentina is to hire a tour guide or an organized excursion or tour. If you can spare the expense, a private tour is by far the best experience because you have more control over the itinerary and the amount of time you spend at each place. Group tours are more economical but you have to stick with the group and obviously won’t have the undivided attention of the tour guide. When it comes to city tours, I would actually recommend the group tours because they will cover the main tourist attractions in a day or less, allowing you to spend the rest of your stay in the city exploring the sites that really piqued your interest during the tour.
Even outside the big cities, private tours or group excursions are the way to go. In most cases, whether you are visiting a national park or a malbec vineyard, you will have to endure a long drive from your hotel because things are just so spread out and Argentina is so sparsely populated. Taking part in an organized excursion, whether in private or part of a larger group, will be a more meaningful and comfortable experience. It eliminates the risk of getting lost, allows you to take a nap during transit, and provides you with a knowledgeable guide so you won’t need to have your nose stuck in a guide book all day. And in some cases there are those special places you just can’t get to without a qualified guide.
I hope these tips help make your trip to Argentina a dream vacation.