My first big 6-months-or-so travel adventure begun on October 29, 2013. Quite an inexperienced backpacker, I admit I was a bit afraid of hitting the road with not much of a plan and 23 kilos of (what I though would be) most essential things for the trip. Having lived in three countries so far, and having moved houses quite a few times, I still get nervous when diving into new territory. However, as much as change makes me uncomfortable, keeping everything the same terrifies me. So, to ease my transition from (fairly) comfortable life I was living to life on the road, I spent two weeks on a ‘neutral’ territory, in a city I once lived in for two years. That was a good decision. I had time to plan my stay in Argentina and relax before my big dream started.
On November 14, I landed in Buenos Aires. I had booked a hostel in San Telmo neighbourhood for 4 nights and I had an idea of how to get from the airport to the hostel. I was prepared to pay the highest price, but hoped I would figure out the cheapest one (take a bus to downtown, then a cab to the hostel, all for one price). I’m not sure if it was beginner’s luck, but I got the bus-taxi combo for even less than what I found on the internet! My cab driver’s name was Ramón, which I thought was cool, and it also reminded me of a character from a Spanish textbook. At that point, everything seemed so surreal to me, that I literally had to keep repeating to myself: You are in Argentina, it’s real, you are here!
I didn’t have a strict timeline, except that I had to get to Porto Alegre, Brazil by December 2 to fly to Rio de Janeiro with a friend. Before that, I was going to spend a few days at the friend’s house in Campo Bom, in the south of Brazil. Since I had plenty of time for Argentina, I decided to take it easy in Buenos Aires, and ended up staying there for 10 days. I took two day trips from there: one to Tigre, a town on the Parana River delta, and Colonia, a small, quiet town in Uruguay.
Since I arrived early in the morning, and my room wasn’t ready yet, I had a couple of hours to explore the neighbourhood. The hostel was a block away from the city’s main avenue 9 de mayo. At first, it all seemed too crazy: cars and people everywhere, the widest avenue in the world (9 de mayo), with six, seven, eight lanes one way. However, as the days passed by, I started liking it.
I learned my lesson not to believe everything I read in a guidebook (even if it’s up to date) the first day: they won’t change your money at the bank, in Argentina you do it in the street. It took me several decades back, when we used to do the same in my country. Even though the first time you feel like the ‘cambio’ guy’s face is the last thing you’ll see before he takes you to a place you won’t be coming back from, it’s all a very safe and well rehearsed exchange. Step 1: you walk along Calle Florida, past people saying “Cambio, cambio’ left and right. You pick one. Step 2: you approach them, ask for their rate. If you agree, let them know. If not, repeat Step 1. Step 3: you follow the person to a locked room off the street, where the exchange takes place. Step 4: they give you your money, and a flier for a travel agency/leather store or something that would be of interest to a tourist. Step 5: you thank them, leave and feel like you did something illegal.
On my second day I took a free walking city tour. Apparently, it’s a popular way nowadays to see a city for a lot cheaper than standard city tours. At the end, everybody tips the guide as much as they want. It exists in many cities in South America, but, from my experience, they are not always reliable. One free walking tour that I wanted to take in Buenos Aires even asks you to sign up, but when I went to the place they indicated on their website, nobody showed up. Still, I would recommend doing this, and you can still do your own tour if they stand you up.
When I was a little girl, I had a small, blue suitcase with a girl on it and the name ‘Mafalda’ written under the girl’s drawing. I had no idea who Mafalda was, but I loved that suitcase and used it until it fell apart. Little did I know that 20 something years later the same girl will be looking at me from all the newsstands in Argentina! Mafalda is Argentinian, and she’s a cartoon character. The only natural thing was to pay tribute to my favourite childhood accessory and visit Mafalda’s statue, on a bench in San Telmo. It turned out the statue is a start to ‘Paseo de la historieta’, a mini-walk that takes you to statues of about ten other cartoon characters. Even though none of those were familiar to me, I did the walk and, for half an hour, felt like a kid on a school trip. I enjoyed it lots!
Even though my hostel was in a good spot and I could walk to most of the sights, a few times I had to take the bus or the metro (Subte). I have to say the metro system is very easy to use, relatively fast and efficient. It reminds me a bit of New York City metro, with aspiring musicians showing off their talent and people selling a variety of things you might need on your ride home, or after it (gum, city maps, hair clips, cookies, you name it). Buses, on the other hand, are a completely different story. First, if you don’t wave to the driver on time, he won’t stop. Second, most drivers are not helpful at all. Third, they will stop in the middle of the road, expecting you to be able to run fast and jump high. Four, even if the buses have the same number, sometimes their routes are different. All this said, I arrived everywhere I wanted to and I wasn’t late for anything, so I guess the public transport is one of those ‘chaoses’ that work.
As I said, in ten days I managed to see the whole city and take two day trips, all with no rush. I would say four days would be enough to do all the sight seeing. Buenos Aires, as big as it is, is still extremely easy to navigate, and very safe, even when it gets dark. Of course, I avoided walking along dark, empty streets, and walking very late at night, since I was by myself. You might have a problem finding an empty street in Buenos Aires at any time of day or night, because it seems like there’s always something going on.
For those who travel alone, hostels, walking tours and couchsurfing people are your best friends. I found all three very helpful, as you do get lonely and you need someone to talk to. I spent my last two days in the hostel on my own, alone in a room for six. I didn’t like it at all, and decided I prefer people walking in late at night and walking up early in the morning, than being by myself. Or maybe that was just me at the beginning of my trip, still fresh and full of understanding for other travellers’ schedules.
After ten days in Buenos Aires I decided it was time to move on, to Puerto Iguazu. I said goodbye to Buenos Aires and to the cute guy at the front desk of my hostel and took a 16-hour bus ride on the most comfortable bus ever.