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Learning to Live Porteño: 10 Ways that Buenos Aires is Different from the US

October 01, 2015
by CEA CAPA Content Creator
 Look at this beautiful city. Look.

Buenos Aires is vibrant. It’s expansive, it’s beautiful, and it’s the crown jewel of the Rio de la Plata region, there’s no possible way around it. So many people, so many sights, so many small convenience stores, so many buses, so many pigeons – thankfully not too many pigeons – like any big city, Argentina’s capital has its fair share of everything you could ever want or need. And it is FAR different from any big American city I have ever been to, in more ways than just the language. This is to be expected though, as those of us who study abroad in vastly different cities all around the globe know and will soon find out. We’ll find out just what sets our new home apart from our old one. So what exactly sets Buenos Aires, Argentina apart from its economic partner up North? Now that’s a list that gets constantly revised and recompiled every day, as my semester progresses. Here’s what I’ve noticed so far:

First and foremost: No free water, no free refills.

One of the biggest shocks for American students, one that is actually quite common in other parts of the world, other than that whole metric system thing, is the virtual absence of free water or free refills in restaurants. There are some places like this in the States, but the notion of not paying extra for more of your favorite beverage is such an American concept that you tend to never think about the possibility of it being otherwise, until the situation is very much otherwise. Also, they have carbonated water here! All the fizziness of soda, but without the sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup. Yuck! Just kidding, Coca-Cola practically owns my taste buds…). What would seem like a novelty is actually very common throughout Europe and as it turns out, South America. So common, in fact, that you should expect to see some convenience stores that have more options for “agua con gas” than “agua sin gas.” Sidenote: No cherry nor vanilla Coke either. I looked. Extensively. I can easily say this is what I miss most.

Food is a bit more expensive. Clothes, super expensive.

Depending on where in the US you come from, food in Buenos Aires may seem exorbitantly expensive or just about average. As with any big city, the closer you get to downtown, the more dough you’ll have to fork over to find a good meal (pardon the puns). Take the Bife de Chorizo, for example. It’s a slab of beef a little bigger than your fist, and it tends to be around $150 ARS (about $16.23 USD).

(NOTICE: The Argentine peso, which isn’t exactly a very stable currency, is currently experiencing heavy inflation. All figures are taken using the official exchange rate of 30 August, 2015: 9.24 pesos per 1 US dollar. It was 6 to 1 last year. Chances are in only a couple of months these numbers will be obsolete. But everything else will still be good!)

Go to the local McDonalds or Starbucks (because no matter where in the world you go, you can’t escape them) and you’ll see that prices in general are about 20% more expensive. And the McNuggets are smaller. And the BBQ sauce is sweeter. But that’s just me. Go into any mall in any area of the city, and you’ll see just how much sense it makes that locals tend to travel out of the country to the United States just to buy clothes. Everything down here except for leather is hella expensive. A t-shirt that would retail for about $25 at your friendly neighborhood Hot Topic, combined with the passable dollar-store quality of your homely American dollar store, would cost you roughly $350-490 ARS if you decided to shop at any mall in this city (that’s $37.88-53.03 USD. What). No offense dollar store, I would gladly buy your shirts for $9.99. But everything from pants to tops to sweaters to socks to overshirts to underwear are better bought at home than bought here, if you’re on any kind of a budget.

Orange juice cheaper. Soda, more expensive.

A big plus of this country’s price ranges is that things like juice (orange juice in particular) is really cheap. A liter carton won’t cost you more than $12 ARS ($1.30 USD) and the stuff is pleasantly fresh. It helps that the area around the city is orange-growin’ country. Coke products, however, aren’t so native to this region. A 20 ounce bottle of just about any soft drink in the States will cost $1.25 to $1.75, on average. $19 ARS ($2.06 USD) will be about the best price you’ll find in this city. This isn’t horrible by any means, but if you inhale soda anything like you inhale oxygen, you’ll feel the price difference eventually.

You won’t find your favorite restaurants here.

Unless you like McDonalds, Burger King, or Subway. Then you’ll find your favorite restaurants here. Chipotle, perhaps the eighth Holy Sacrament for a majority of college millennials, is stubbornly and maddeningly still absent from Buenos Aires and its diet. While you’re at it, don’t throw Cheesecake Factory, Pizza Hut, B-dubs, or Benihana into the mix either. Some tried to find footing in this city, but ultimately failed and went out of business. Luckily, Buenos Aires has its own chain restaurants and this opens you (and me too, so I should probably get on it) up to a wealth of local possibilities that won’t seem so pricey because there are no American versions to compare to!

You won’t find Apple Stores here either.

Yeah, that’s right. Unless you want to buy an airplane ticket just to browse the one store at the airport.

Public transportation is super cheap.

This is my favorite thing about this city. It has a thoroughly exhaustive public bus system called the colectivo, with numbered buses running from every corner of the city and back on a relatively consistent schedule. One bus ride costs about $3.25 ARS ($0.35 USD) and can take you clear to the other side of town if you so happen to need it. This price is ridiculous! It’s a far cry from the $2.50 per trip metro ride down (or up) in Miami, and the similarly priced fares for most big cities and their metro/bus/subway systems.


Such a low fare makes it incredibly easy to explore the city, and incredibly easier to pay the cover fee at the club – or, maybe, buy school supplies for all the studying I plan on doing.

Breastfeeding in public ain’t no thang.

With all the bitter banter going on in the US about whether women have the right to breastfeed in public, this is a refreshing change of pace. I went to an open air market in Once today to get forks for my Ramen noodles, and saw at least four people breastfeeding their children. And not a single person cared. Everybody minded their own business, perused the deals on purses and sunglasses and watches, occasionally tried to haggle – in supersonic Spanish, of course. I assumed they were haggling – and enjoyed the afternoon.

Stop signs are scarce.

I went a whole three weeks without seeing one. There are a couple of “PARE” signs in the upscale neighborhood of Palermo, but for the most part, stoplights are very common down here. And when there aren’t stoplights, and the unicornian stop sign is also absent, drivers just tend to follow a sort of trust system: slowing down at the intersection and trusting that any cars running the other way do the same. And it works like a charm, fortunately, because it seems like this sort of system has been in place for a very long time. Most streets are one-way, and because the streets are so narrow, it’s common for cars to stay under 25 miles per hour. Other than this, drivers will expect you to be on the ball 100% of the time. If you don’t start moving before the stoplight turns green, you will get honked at. Oh! The stoplights! I have to tell you about the stoplights!

The stoplights.

They look exactly the same. But! But they have this nifty little feature that is utterly absent from and by all means implementable in American stoplights. Just like the precautionary yellow light lets you know when to stop, when the light turns red for the cars running the opposite way, your stoplight will indicate that it’s about to turn green by turning red and yellow. This way, you’ll get a heads-up on when your turn to go is starting.

 A mixture of red and yellow. I call it... rellow.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t keep cars – and especially not the colectivos – from going as soon as the light’s yellow-red. Weirdly enough, though, I have not been witness to a single car accident in the entire six weeks I’ve been here. The closest, I guess, would be when I saw this dude get miffed at a car who had parallel parked in front of him, so he ripped off its rear window wipers and drove away. He must have been having a bad day…

Spanish here isn’t how Spanish was in Spanish class.

Well, for the most part, yes it is. Pretty much everything is identical and I believe I was prepared very well by my Spanish education leading up to now. But there is this one little tiny thing. They use a standard called “voseo” down here, which basically is an entirely different form of the second-person singular, as well as informal commands. It’s easier than the form, yes, and it has not been that difficult to learn at all, but I had no idea it was a thing until I came across it while looking up porteño slang words less than a week before my trip. Maybe I just un-lucked out in terms of schooling, but in four years of high school, one year of college, and even the three study abroad pre-orientation meetings specifically for this trip, it was never mentioned even once that nearly half of Latin America, Buenos Aires most notably, uses a completely different form of a really common part of speech.

Okay, that last one wasn’t really a difference from some aspect of the US in the strictest sense, but it is extremely fascinating and has been a neat learning experience in adapting quickly to something unexpected. Like no free refills. Honestly, though, I should have expected that one. It just goes to show how crazily unique all the different corners of the world can be, and how simply branching out gives you a whole new perspective on your own culture once you’re living in another. I hope you all enjoyed this first piece by me, and for my fellow MOJOs, I can’t wait to hear about your respective cities and countries. Happy learning/living!

Kevin Cecil is the Fall 2015 CEA MOJO Blogger in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is currently a Sophomore at the University of Miami.

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