The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Conceptions of Buenos Aires: Everything is dirt cheap

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(This is the first in an occasional series of looks at common perceptions, true or false, that people may have about life in Buenos Aires.)

Since the economic crisis of 2001 resulted in the crippling of the national currency, travel experts have touted Argentina as one of the most affordable destinations in the world…for those with dollars, euros or pounds sterling in their pockets, that is. But are things really as cheap as they say they are?

Yes, the hard currency has held strongly against the Argentine peso, which currently floats at around $3.90 to the dollar. What this exchange rate doesn’t reveal is the meteoric rise in inflation over the past two years. As prices of basic necessities go up — a kilogram of beef, the staple product here, can cost more than 30 pesos at the supermarket — Argentine salaries have struggled to keep pace. Economic instability means that people have to devise creative ways to make ends meet: eating out less often; living in close-knit units; taking advantage of some loophole in the law or just the relaxed nature of government corruption; having palancas, or connections, to land a steady job — or just giving and taking a little generosity among neighbors and families in the face of uncertainty.

Of course, if you’re an expat, you’re circumstances are probably different. You probably won’t need to worry about scrimping costs, at first. The exchange rate is, overall, still pretty favorable, but don’t expect crazy bargains. Instead of paying 40 pesos for groceries that would cost $40 in the States, you’ll more likely pay close to 100 pesos for $40 worth of groceries. Expect to pay even more if you are wedded to buying condiments and snacks imported from home. A pint of beer goes for anywhere from 8 to 14 pesos in a fancy bar, and a ticket at the movies will fall in the 20-25 peso range. If you’re shopping for new books, clothing or electronics, you will probably pay even more than you would at home. One thing that does fit the dirt-cheap category is public transportation: thanks to government subsidies, a one-way ticket on the Subte (or subway) is just AR$1.10, and the usual bus fare is AR$1.25. The services, though often sardine-packed, are efficient and reliable. But time will tell where these fares end up.

For long-term visitors, there are at least two common frustrations: renting an apartment and withdrawing money. It is well known that expats have great difficulty finding apartments with standard two-year leases and will often have to pay much more than the natives for a temporary rental. Still, compared to London or Manhattan, the prices in Buenos Aires’ upscale neighborhoods are a steal. For comparison’s sake, the cost of my living situation here — a large furnished bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment in trendy Palermo — is very close to that of mine in Philadelphia, a larger two-bedroom apartment but in a down-to-earth, working-class neighborhood.Starters should check out craigslist and Clarin, as well as Solo Dueños and Comparto Depto. Knowing Spanish, or someone who speaks it, goes a long way to assure that you’re paying a fair price. If you’re flexible, you can settle for cheaper and steadier living quarters a few months after your first temporary rental.

Then there are the ATMs. Most of them limit your withdrawals to 300 pesos at a time and charge you a fifteen-peso fee on top. But not all. The bank I frequent the most is Santander Rio, which allows up to AR$1,000 withdrawals at a time. Higher amounts make the fee somewhat more bearable — although chances are that your bank is charging you $5 (almost 20 pesos) or more along with it. So definitely contact your bank and find out what the deal is; there may be ways around it. At the worst, the fees will likely be an annoyance but little more. When it comes to affordable living, Buenos Aires may not be the haven it was once thought to be, but you can live comfortably and get around town on less if you play it right.

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Written by cwmote

May 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm

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