Living in Buenos Aires (Not Visiting)

Grace Worwa
March 20, 2022

Before arriving in Buenos Aires, I often dreamed of all the sights I would see there and the new food I would eat. I anticipated meeting new people and learning a new language. I didn’t think about doing laundry in Buenos Aires, buying groceries, or picking up cash orders. I didn’t consider how I would set up a gym or purchase data for my phone. The funny thing is, all these presumably dull, tedious tasks occupied the center of my mind throughout my entire first week abroad. 

I never pictured doing laundry or buying groceries as a part of my Buenos Aires experience because I barely think about them at home. For groceries, I would pull into the Target parking lot twice a week and buy what I always buy. For laundry, I would haul my clothes to the washer and dryer in my family’s home and do homework while I wait. For cash, well…I didn’t need it. I used a credit card for everything. At home, I know how things work and where they will be, so it was easy to plan my life around them without a second thought. 

In Buenos Aires, all of that changed. Suddenly, there was different food in the stores, I needed cash for everything, and there were no washer and dryer a few doors down. My entire schedule and way of doing things was upended, and I had to adjust. I realized that at home, I had taken for granted the comfort and security of viewing dull, everyday tasks as dull and everyday. I had assumed that things would be similar in Buenos Aires. 

In some ways, they were. In others, they definitely were not. 

Suddenly, those dull, tedious tasks became my first priority. After all, they are necessary to maintain your health and daily functioning, and it’s stressful to know that you might not be able to get them done when or how you want. 

Although the process of figuring all that out can feel frustrating and overwhelming, I’m here to tell you that it’s not impossible. After having spent over two weeks in Buenos Aires, I now feel like I have a pretty good handle on things, and here are some tips to help you navigate through the same process:

Groceries and Shopping - Big department stores in Buenos Aires are rare. No Target, no Walmart, no Costco. Products are sold in smaller, more specialized stores. For example, carnecerías sell only meat, and you’ll find most of your fruits and veggies at small produce markets. For personal hygiene products, you’ll need to go to a small pharmacy, and for tools and appliances, you’ll need to find a ferretería. I even had to go to a store that sold only plastic products, mostly containers and bins, in order to buy some cheap hangers. 

The trick when it comes to groceries is to try out different stores in your area and see what works for you. Since I’m used to buying everything in one place, I’ve been drawn to DISCO, which carries a wide variety of groceries, fruits and vegetables, and even personal hygiene products like shampoo, deodorant, and toilet paper. Dia is another good option, but they tend to be smaller and may or may not carry produce. In addition to Dia and DISCO, I go to a tiny produce shop near my apartment building because they tend to have better fruit than DISCO, and I go to a natural food market nearby solely to buy peanut butter. 

Getting Cash - Even though the credit/debit card may be the default in the U.S., the same is not true for foreigners in Buenos Aires. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have a credit card in case of emergency (most places accept Mastercard or Visa), but even companies with good reputations for international travel will likely convert Argentine pesos to U.S. dollars based on the official exchange rate (1 USD = 109.30 ARS). This rate is much lower than what you might get if you exchange cash at a hotel, or withdraw cash from your bank account through Xoom (run through Paypal) or Western Union. 

In my case, I’ve been using Xoom, and my last order was exchanged at a rate of 1 USD = 188.394 ARS. All of a sudden, the book I bought for 3000 ARS goes from 27.48 USD to 15.92 USD! Like I said, cash is the way to go because with the right exchange rate, you can cut your spending nearly in half. 

The trouble might come when you actually try to get a hold of the cash. For me, it took four attempts before I was actually able to pocket the money. The first and third time, the pickup location was unexpectedly closed, and the second time, I found out that I needed to present my physical passport, not just a paper copy. Only on the fourth and final attempt was I able to collect my cash successfully. 

When it comes to getting cash, my advice is to be patient. Try different methods and see what works for you. Bring U.S. dollars and a functioning ATM card to use at the airport when you land — even if you get it at the official exchange rate, at least you will have sufficient funds to last you until you figure out your money situation. When it comes to picking up your cash order, don’t expect to be successful the first time. In my experience, pickup locations have unreliable hours, may not carry enough cash to fulfill your order, or may just be out of cash entirely, and they rarely have phone numbers that you can call to ask questions. They will expect you to bring your physical passport and maybe even a copy of it for their records. 

Getting Set Up at a Gym - The factors that go into choosing a gym are relatively similar to my experience in the U.S. – location, equipment, price, business hours, the classes they offer, etc. Also consider that some gyms may require a physical performed by a doctor in Buenos Aires before permitting you to work out. 

My chosen gym is Megatlon, which I would recommend for their wonderful staff and top notch equipment. However, let me just say that their system is not designed for study abroad students. Since they don’t usually offer month by month memberships, they gave me a special deal for my four-month stay. Their computer system then would not allow them to charge me for four months at once, and this is still being resolved. The Megatlon app also would not allow me to register, then it would not let me reserve workout times. Thankfully, the staff were helpful and made exceptions for me along the way.

Laundry - In Buenos Aires, laundromats are huge. Instead of sitting around for hours while your clothes spin in the washer and dryer, you haul your laundry to a small laundromat, where they wash, dry, fold, and maybe even perfume your clothes for you. Your only job is to pick it up later that day or the next and pay (I recently paid about 1300 ARS for three loads). 

Although I had never used a laundromat before, this has been the easiest thing for me to figure out so far. The key is just to find a place that works for you because each one does things a little differently — some give you a specified pick up time and some will just text you when it’s ready, some will perfume your clothes and others won’t, etc. 

The SIM Card - Perhaps the cheapest and easiest way to connect your phone to the Buenos Aires network is through a SIM Card. Other options exist, like buying an international plan from your U.S. provider, or buying a second cheap phone for calls and texts in Buenos Aires, but I can only speak to the route that I chose: the SIM card. This option allows you to have data on your own phone, and thus keep your GPS function (unlike if you bought a second phone). At the same time, you also have an Argentine phone number and thus be able to sign up and register for various things that require that (unlike if you had an international plan with your U.S. provider). The SIM card also costs less than an international plan. 

If you plan on getting a SIM card in Buenos Aires, make sure you check with your provider before you leave to make sure your phone is unlocked, or that you can remove the SIM card. I would also recommend setting up an international plan for at least the first week of your stay to give yourself time to figure the SIM card situation out. In my case, I relied on an international plan with my U.S. provider for about four days so that I could have Google Maps in the city while I figured out how to buy a SIM card. 

Once in Buenos Aires, you buy your SIM card at a Kiosco, or a corner store. The big three companies are Claro, Movistar, and Personal – I chose Claro. You insert the card, fill out an online form with your info, and the company approves your application within 24 hours. Then you can buy packages of data. As an example, I purchased a package of 6 GB over 30 days for about 1000 ARS. 

It can be difficult and frustrating to dedicate so much effort to tasks that you once thought of as dull and tedious at home, but figuring out how to do laundry or buy groceries in a foreign country is the difference between living there and just visiting. It’s just as much part of your study abroad experience as seeing the sights and eating great food. My advice is to be patient and to trust yourself. It will all work out in the end. It might take a couple weeks, but you’ll figure out the groove of this new place just like you did at home. 

Click here if you’d like to take your own adventure abroad with IES Abroad! 

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Grace Worwa

<p>I’m studying for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I hope to improve my Spanish language skills and learn more about the country’s women’s rights movement. I’m from the U.S. state of Minnesota, where I also attend college and study Spanish, Political Science, and English. I’m on a pre-law track and hope to pursue a career in immigration law.</p>

Home University:
Gustavus Adolphus College
Dayton, MN
Political Science
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