With a few days in Argentina pre- and post-Antarctica, we had some time to delve into the Argentine capital and enjoy the warmth of November spring in Argentina. We’ve consistently been jet-setting for the decade-plus we’ve been together but Argentina brought one of the strangest currency situations that we’ve encountered. Before sharing the details of our two days in Buenos Aires, I thought I’d start by sharing about planning for Buenos Aires, including where to stay, the ‘best’ areas for different types of travelers, plus the nitty gritty on the exchange rate, how it all works, and the VAT refund for foreigners at hotels.
Planning for Buenos Aires – The Basics
If you’re traveling to Argentina, don’t forget your specific converter! The outlets in this area are different from Europe, US, Aus, etc so be sure to have a dedicated converter (multi-converters likely won’t have this plug).
Exchange Rates and Cash in Argentina
The most confusing part of planning for Buenos Aires is the currency. If you’ve been digging into travel to Argentina in general, you’ll have come across information about how there are ‘multiple currencies’ or ‘multiple exchange rates’, and you’re probably trying to decipher what that means and how it impacts your personal travel. Here’s the nitty gritty on how it works, and how to plan accordingly:
At the time of writing this in November 2023, the official exchange rate on my foreign exchange app was showing about 350:1 for pesos to USD. When I began converting those numbers looking at menus, experiences, etc. it made sense. Prices seemed fair; not cheap, not terribly expensive, but about average compared with what you’d expect in the US and Europe. As it turns out, that’s the ‘official’ exchange rate, which, unless you’re Argentine, is probably not the rate you’ll be using.
We took $200 in cash to the exchange bureau suggested to us in the Recoleta area of Buenos Aires. As always, I consulted my app and asked what the going exchange rate was at this outpost. 855:1, we were told. Come again?! As it turns out, this is probably more or less the rate you’ll be working within Argentina. Historically, this was more of the cash rate that tourists were getting when using cash vs. card, but there’s been a recent shift to allow Visa and MC (not Amex!) to be charged at a similar rate (around 850:1) for foreign travelers with a foreign credit card. There’s really nowhere on a foreign exchange app or site that I would have easily seen this or known this alternate rate, but suffice it to say it made Argentina as a foreigner extraordinarily affordable.
So, do you need cash in Argentina? Historically, people would have said yes given that the inflated exchange rate was a cash-based system but now with cards processing at this rate, you don’t need to carry the quantity of pesos that you may have previously. We had about $200 worth of pesos and could have gotten away with far less. All restaurants, cafés, bars, etc. happily took cards, and even many street vendors had CC machines (though cash is best with these small transactions).
Hotel Tax Refund
It’s worth noting that hotels are still very expensive as they are often priced in USD, with luxury 5* outposts well into the $500+/night range. That said, foreigners are entitled to get the 21% tax that’s applied to this back instantly by filling out a quick digital form at the hotel. It took us about 5 minutes to input our passport details and arrival details, and we were able to avoid a hefty tax upon checkout. There was talk from fellow travelers about possibly being able to pay in pesos in some instances for hotels which significantly lowers the rate in theory if they’re basing their USD rate off of the official exchange rate, but as this wasn’t our personal experience, I can’t comment on that with any personal insight! Suffice it to say that if you’re pre-booking your hotel – which was essential while we were there given the high volume of visitors – you’ll likely be charged at the USD rate.
Safety in Buenos Aires
We had no issues with safety during our time in Buenos Aires but were warned by friends who’d previously visited to stay alert. While that’s generally true in any major city, even locals in BA warned us to watch our pockets and bags while in markets, on public transport, etc. When we brought up the area of La Boca, we were flat-out told that it was an area where muggings were common and that we shouldn’t even think about walking there. In the area of our hotel, Recoleta, we never felt this, but I did keep a cross body on me instead of a normal purse to keep cash and valuables more protected given the volume of people we encountered during our time at San Telmo’s Sunday market and our unexpected run-in with BA’s very lively and supported gay pride parade.
Where to Stay in Buenos Aires
When planning for Buenos Aires, choosing a central location is key as the city is quite sprawling and spread out. BA has a number of neighborhoods/barrios to choose from but we opted for Recoleta, a more upmarket area with great hotels, a number of restaurants, and a walkable locale. If we were to visit again, I’d likely opt for the same area or the more colorful boho area of San Telmo, where the famous decades-old Sunday market is still alive and well. Palmero also offers an upmarket feel with lots of restaurants within walking distance.
For hotels, we opted for the Park Hyatt Palacio Duhau, which offers a beautiful and grand space with perfectly outfitted rooms and a fabulous location. For alternatives nearby, consider Four Seasons Buenos Aires, or the Alvear Palace Hotel. For something vibey, the Faena is sleek with some amazing dining on-site, though the location is a bit removed. In San Telmo, the Curio Collection spits you out right into the heart of the Sunday market.
If you’re planning a trip to Argentina and want some help with the planning process, reach out to me at Compass & Vine for planning assistance!
How Many Days Should You Plan for BA?
For most travelers planning for Buenos Aires, the capital city is part of a larger trip, likely encompassing other go-tos like Iguazu Falls, Patagonia, or Mendoza for a dose of wine country. We had a total of four nights in Buenos Aires which I thought was a great taste of the city. We could have easily spent a week and included a few day trips as well (Colonia is often a go-to from Buenos Aires for those wanting a brief brush with Uruguay). Buenos Aires is a bustling city that really slants towards a more European feel than a Latin American one, and while it doesn’t sit on the water like Rio de Janeiro (read about our travels to Rio), it does offer a cosmopolitan city vibe. And with the current exchange rates, it’s hard to beat the overall experience you can enjoy here compared with many other cities of this caliber. Looking for some experiences to add to your list while planning for Buenos Aires?
- Explore the city’s main sites and neighborhoods on foot. You could spend days wandering Recoleta, Palermo, San Telmo and Soho, shopping, dining, and people-watching.
- Shop local! We had so much fun exploring the local markets. San Telmo has its famous Sunday market which is overflowing with vendors (though a bit overwhelming and chaotic). On the weekends, near Recoleta Cemetery, there’s a fantastic smaller market that’s approachable and artisanal. We scored a number of great buys there!
- Experience an Argentinian steakhouse. I’m a vegetarian and I’m saying this but steakhouses are very central to Argentinian cuisine and Buenos Aires does them well. If you’re planning for Buenos Aires and interested in a go-to spot like Don Julio, make a reservation far in advance. When we tried to put our name on the list, we got there an hour before opening and the earliest available time for dinner was 11:45PM. We opted for La Cabrera (still excellent) but suffice it to say reservations are important for institutions like this, even on weekdays.
- Go to a tango show — or try a tango show with dinner if you’re so inclined! It sounds kitschy but virtually everyone we spoke to raved about a proper tango show mentioned that it far exceeded expectations. On Sunday in San Telmo, you may see dancers on the street performing too!
- Take in a polo match — or for equestrians, try a polo lesson! While polo is played globally, Argentina is one of the most dominant destinations for the sport so it’s the perfect place to take in a match if timing allows.
- Visit Teatro Colon on a tour or for a real experience! Arguably one of the world’s most famous theatres, we had friends that went for opera though ballet is also available at the theatre if your timing syncs up.
- Enjoy a bit of wine tasting in the city. Malbecs come to mind in the world of wine but Argentinian wine goes beyond that. If Mendoza isn’t your itinerary – or even if it is! – head to one of the city’s great local wine outposts to try a flight of local wines.
- Delve into the food scene with a cooking class or a food tour. Argentina isn’t the most veg-friendly place so while veg options do exist I’d advise vegetarians to skip out on food tours where Argentinian food culture is centered around meat.
- Take a day trip to Colonia, Uruguay for longer stays in Buenos Aires.
We were so focused on planning for our journey to Antarctica that Buenos Aires came together very quickly for us and we discovered so much about the city just being there. In terms of when to visit, November seemed like perfection: warm, sunny days in the low 80s and cooled-down nights. Keep in mind when planning for Buenos Aires that the weather here is not reflective of Argentina in general given the size and topographical diversity of the country so plan accordingly! Iguazu weather for example, will be wholly different from Patagonia, so investigate each climate prior to your travels.
Have you been to Buenos Aires? Was the exchange rate as perplexing when you were there?