Category Archives: Argentina

What we’ve spent in South America

As a public service to anyone who might be thinking about following in our footsteps in South America, and to satisfy the curiosity of others, we thought we’d share a little about what our day to day spending is while traveling in various countries.

We do this as we leave South America and we’ll repeat a similar exercise for Asia later.

We’re providing an average daily spend in New Zealand dollars, and our estimate of how many times cheaper the countries we travel in are than New Zealand. This data is taken from our ongoing spending tracking which we update every week (I affectionately describe this as our WEEBU or weekly budget update) and from our general recollections of the prices we have observed.

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I’d have learned nothing as a consultant if I didn’t offer some disclaimers over this and indeed, a couple of caveats are in order:

  • This is on the ground costs. It excludes international flights and other pre-trip costs like visas and vaccinations.
  • This represents our travel. That means it reflects the specific experiences we chose to have, rather than what costs will be like for everyone. You could travel and spend more, or less and you might differ from us in where you chose to splash out or do it cheap.
  • Our costs are for a couple. You could reasonably assume two thirds for a lone traveler.
  • In a long period of travel there are inevitably some ‘lumpy’ costs like buying a new backpack or sending a package home. Where it’s easy to do so we’ve taken these out, but some will remain.

Some observations

  • Argentina is pleasingly cheap given the quality of food, accommodation etc. we’ve enjoyed is as good, if not better, than what you’d expect at home. Taking advantage of the black market exchange rate it’s like an awesomely cheap version of Europe.
  • Peru is probably cheaper than it looks. Costs are pumped up by expensive entries to places like Machu Picchu. We also chose to spend more to enjoy more of Peru’s excellent cuisine. We don’t regret that for a second, but you could spend less.
  • If you’ve got US dollars then Venezuela is silly cheap and the quality of food and accommodation is surprisingly high. But even given that, traveling there at the moment isn’t worth it. It’s just too dangerous to be enjoyable.
  • Colombia is a great destination and well worth the extra few dollars above the price of travel in Ecuador and Peru. Spending a long time there, to volunteer like we did, is very worthwhile.

Like a vos – mooting a new expression

Unlike most of the Spanish speaking world, the Argentinians say vos to address someone informally as “you”. In a move that will hopefully rival great linguistic campaigns, like fetch in 2004, I want to use this Argentinian quirk to create a new saying.

It’s like saying “like a boss” but instead you say “like a vos” and it is used to denote something awesomely Argentinian that you did. Examples:

  • I smashed the whole steak, like a vos
  • I put dulce de leche on my toast, like a vos
  • I correctly conjugated the second person informal imperative, like a vos

I feel this has a lot of potential, especially in China, our next destination, where I imagine almost everyone will be receptive to this new craze.

 

So long South America – some parting observations

The sunset at the beginning of the world; day's end at Isla del Sol.
The sunset at the beginning of the world; day’s end at Isla del Sol.

We’re really sad to be leaving South America. It’s been an amazing five months and, if it weren’t for Asian travels on the horizon we’d probably be pretty down about our departure.

Truth be told, South America was never my first priority. When our timing for Asia didn’t match with the climate we needed to do what we wanted we had to reshuffle and I wasn’t sure how it would work out. But our time here has been challenging and rewarding and the places we have been and people we’ve met have been incredible. Significantly exceeded expectations.

As we leave, here are a range of parting observations. They try, but fail, to capture what we’ve seen and what we’ve thought in broad sweeping themes:

  1. There’s a lot of European history here, more than I had understood. Around the same time that Maori were losing their independence to British colonisers, Colombians were getting their independence from Spanish conquistadores. So things look and feel quite European even if they also feel different.
  2. There’s an upper middle class in the Andes whose life experience is probably not so different from ours at home. And that’s true for the whole middle class in Argentina. At the same time there are poorer groups whose living standards are dramatically different.
  3. A little Spanish goes a long way. A little more goes a long way too. There’s surely no other language that is so accessible to English speakers that allows you to speak with such a diversity of people. And the ability to cut through the hand signals and ask about family or work or aspirations really enriches a travel experience. I’m glad I learned some and grateful that Fiona knew lots.
  4. South American societies are colonial, like at home, but the mixing of ethnicities, be they African, European or indigenous, has been much greater. At its most mixy, skin colour doesn’t even denote ethnicity anymore. This is fundamentally different to New Zealand.
  5. It’s not realistic to call South America ‘catholic’. Not when there’s devil worship, hallucinogenic/spiritual drugs and witches. There’s catholic traditions for sure, but there’s a parallel spiritual belief system which sets South America apart, too. They still manage to be pretty prohibitive about abortion, however.
  6. Sloths are amazing.
  7. With notable exceptions, South American food isn’t much to write home about. There are a lot of carbs and a lot of fried things. Peru and Argentina stand out as the pick of the bunch in terms of cuisine.
  8. There’s a strong left wing political tradition in lots of South American countries. The best face of this is innovative policy and a concern for the poor. The worst is disastrous policies piled one upon another to sustain a doctrine that is clearly unrealistic.
  9. It’s not that dangerous, and danger isn’t always where you’d expect. The massive police presence in Colombia made us feel safer there than in the tourist hub of Ecuador.
  10. The people are great. Colombians and Argentinians are the most openly friendly we’ve come across; Bolivians and Peruvians tend to be a little more reserved. But we’ve experienced kindness everywhere we’ve been.

Policy wonk digest: Argentina

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  • There’s a proposal being mooted here to make motorcyclists wear their numberplate on their jacket and helmet. They say that’ll make them feel like prisoners. We saw them campaigning in a very effective (and loud) protest. True we’ve only seen their pamphlet, and not the government spiel. But we’re sympathetic to their cause. They could no longer carry a bag, nor a passenger. And more than that the proposal seems to be a solution looking for a problem.
  • Gay marriage is legal here. Abortion isn’t. In South America, it’s only legal in Uruguay.
  • Central Buenos Aires has massive avenues. Six lanes in either direction is common. I’ve not seen traffic move so freely anywhere else in such a large city.
  • The subte, or metro, here is only open until eleven at night. This seems at odds with Argentine culture where eleven is about time to sit down to dinner and three am is when clubs open up. Apparently there’s some logic about getting people to drinking establishments, but not back, because on the return journey they’re likely to be more disruptive, and grubby things up.
  • Firefighters here, including in the middle of big cities, are volunteers. Their employers are obliged to give them time off whenever there’s a fire.

Fast food development: Argentina and its kosher McDonalds

When completing important background research for our ongoing project to categorise countries by their Western fast food development I came upon an interesting fact: Buenos Aires is the only city in the world outside Israel to have a kosher McDonalds.

Visiting became a small fixation for me, rated higher than the fine arts museum on our sight seeing list. I wanted a Big Mac that would come without cheese, to see how the deserts menu would shape up without dairy (is there really milk in a sundae, anyway?) and to taste a burger patty that, for reasons of Jewish law passing my understanding, is cooked on charcoal rather than with gas.

The truth is, kosher McDonald’s is meant for the Jewish community here, and not for me. I know this now because, if I were Jewish, I would never have sought out the Kosher McDonalds on the sabbath, when it would be obviously closed and I would be left having struggled with subway directions and a labyrinthine food court only to find a roller door between me and a kosher happy meal.

mcdees

The Argentine Jewish community is the largest in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world. Settlement began when Jews were expelled from Spain in the sixteenth century and there have been several waves of immigrants fleeing persecution since. After fleeing Argentina when they became persecuted under the junta here in the 1970s and 80s, the population is now down under 200,000.

More McDonalds than anywhere else we’ve been

Though it severely dampened by spirits and forced me to sample yet another cut of beef instead, the presence of a kosher McDonalds says something about fast food development here. If you have a McDonald’s that caterers specifically to a relatively small population group it must be pretty darn popular. And indeed so it seems to be. In Buenos Aires at least, the concentration of McDonalds is waaay more than anywhere else we’ve been. In the same mall of our kosher misadventure there were at least two other McDonald’s.

The pricing seems to be accessible to ordinary portenos. With our black market exchange it’s very cheap – a combo for $3 – 4USD – and even without it seems comparable to home, though more expensive than a slice or two of cheese pizza.

This leads us to the conclusion that, like men carrying babies, well organised rubbish connection and hot water in public bathrooms, in fast food terms, Buenos Aires feels more like home than anywhere else we’ve been. That means it is the first stage four we’ve encountered: Western fast food is ubiquitous and amongst the cheapest meal you can buy.

Hasta luego carne

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We’re about to head out for our last Argentinian steak. On this sad occasion I have this to say:

  1. Why do we not do sizzling, massive lumps of meat at home? We like meat, and we have cows, what’s the hold up?
  2. You cannot be a vegetarian in Buenos Aires. There’s too much barbequed meat on the air. You absorb at least a half cow just by going for a stroll on Sunday.
  3. We will miss you, carne.

Juggling on a waterbed – Argentina’s managed exchange rate

Macro economic policy is like this: you’re juggling a whole bunch of balls while jumping up and down on a massive waterbed. It’s even more complicated that the analogy implies and we’re certainly no experts, but this is out take on Argentina’s current circus act.

In New Zealand, Europe and the US we’ve let the exchange rate ball drop and now it rises and falls with the waterbed. This is known as a floating exchange rate. In Argentina the exchange rate ball is still being juggled by government. This is a managed exchange rate. The government announces changes to the exchange rate like the Reserve Bank announces changes to interest rates at home.

To facilitate its managed exchange rate the government needs to offset foreign currency transactions by contributing funds of its own. This can cost a lot so in practice governments restrict citizens’ access to foreign currency. In Argentina if you want to travel overseas you need to make an application and this is not always granted.

The downside of devaluation

Sometimes the government may run out of funds, not be able to offset the foreign currency transactions and will instead choose to devalue the currency. This means accepting the Argentine peso is worth less, and paying pesos for other currencies. Argentina had a significant devaluation in 2002, which is about when the black market for US dollars started up, and the peso has been periodically devalued since.

Devaluation sends negative signals about a currency. If your money in your savings account might lose its value in future you feel less secure about saving. You might even choose to keep US dollars under a mattress rather than put money in the bank. Accessing US dollars to do this, when official access is restricted, is why we could exchange our US dollars for a lot more than the official rate, and enjoy steak for less.

If you’re selling products you’re also worried about devaluation. Supermarkets concerned the money they’re paid might be worth less in future will raise prices to compensate. This causes inflation, one of the bigger balls you juggle in macro-economic policy. Too much is very damaging for an economy. It causes uncertainty and precipitates more devaluation. Vicious cycle.

Climbing out of the cycle

If a floating exchange rate is off the table the only way to really get out of this inflationary cycle is if the government has a credible plan to bring the real value of its currency in line with the rate it’s managing it at. That might mean, for example, contractionary fiscal or monetary policy that encourages savings. These tools aren’t fundamentally different to what other economies, like the United States, have been using when the value of their dollar has decreased on the open market.

The Argentine government’s most recent policy to curb inflation is price controls. Key goods, which in Argentina include certain cuts of steak and yerba, the herbs for the all important mate, now have prices set by the government. Supermarkets like Walmart and Carrefour have been fined $750 million for flouting these regulations.

It seems foreign through our eyes to consider managing an exchange rate, because we long dropped that ball and left it to loll around, but there are reasons to do so. A currency that is too volatile on the open market can be damaging to an economy as everyone has to hedge at significant cost. Or you might want to balance benefits to importers and exporters. The high kiwi dollar is great for us when traveling, but not for farmers back home.

Theory asside you’d have to say Argentina is not managing its exchange rate effectively. The threat of devaluation, and the uncertainty that causes, means there’s dozens of illegal moneychangers on Florida street who offer us nearly half as much again as the official rate for our precious greenbacks. And the Argentinians who pay for our US dollars as mattress stuffers are doing so rather than investing in their own economy.

Mothers of Argentina’s disappeared

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Every Thursday afternoon at 3.30pm for the last thirty five years the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo stand and protest in Buenos Aires’ main square. We went and stood with them for a while.

Their protest is for information about their sons who were ‘disappeared’ during the period known at the Dirty War when Argentina was ruled by military dictatorship. As many as thirty thousand of its citizens were kidnapped, tortured and killed.

The movement began in 1977 when mothers looking for information about their lost children found some solidarity together, and the gall to protest in the face of a potentially harsh reaction from the regime. The government dismissed them as las locas (the crazy women) but they gained some international media attention when, at the height of the dictatorship in 1978, Argentina hosted the world cup.

The organisation has widened its mandate to become more about confronting and apologising for the events that happened under the dictatorship. The white headscarf of the women has become a symbol of protest against Argentina’s past.

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There’s an offshoot (the Grandmothers) who protest specifically about the babies that were taken from women who were pregnant when captured and adopted out to military families. Their mothers are presumed dead. There’s also a youth and student wing. The guy with the student’s tee that approached us to explain had the same kind of look in his eyes as the office holders in UN Youth. You could have put a placard in his hand and called him a Model UN delegate.

Watching the women protest was genuinely moving. They’ve been doing this for thirty five years and their questions still go largely unanswered. Most of the women were about the age of our grandmothers. Many arrived in a dedicated minivan that seemed to have come straight from a rest home of some kind. They circled the plaza’s main monument slowly, but with purpose. Their ordinarily meek frames seemed larger behind a banner. Their harrowing experience somewhat defies our otherwise strong idea that modern Argentina is a lot like home.

Steaking out Buenos Aires – five cuts of Argentinian beef

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Looking out my window on the flight from Bolivia there were fertile, pancake flat plains as far as the eye could see. That’s where my steak lives, I thought.

The beef of Argentina has been a dream for some time as we traveled down from Colombia surrounded by fried chicken, potatoes with rice and scrawny cuts of meat. Its promise was one of the things that made Buenos Aires such an exciting stopover destination. Now here I have been determined to sample the wares of the cow as extensively as possible. This post serves as a review of five different cuts of meat.

Overall, excellent

Three general comments to make before we get down to the detail

  1. The beef is all excellent and delicious. Any criticism in the reviews that follow are relative. Any and all deserve a place in Ron Swanson’s album and would knock the socks off all but the best fillets at home.
  2. The sizes are ginormous. If any of the Argentinians sized steaks were on a menu back home the restaurant would give you a free t-shirt if you finished one. Look at the photo above. Those steaks on the counter are for one person.
  3. The cooking on the parilla (grill) is exceptional. I asked my waiter whether one cut would be jugoso, roughly equivalent to rare. He replied that they cook it a punto, literally to the point. And indeed they do, to the point of perfection.

Now on to the five cuts.

Continue reading Steaking out Buenos Aires – five cuts of Argentinian beef

The cats of La Recoleta

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We visited the famous cemetery at La Recoleta which contains the remains of many important Argentinians, including Eva Peron. The bodies are kept in large and well maintained family tombs. They’re not buried or embalmed.

But for us the reals stars of the show were the cats. There’s something like ninety cats living in the cemetery and hiding among the tombs. Their presence was unannounced by our guidebook, so they were a nice surprise.

They’re looked after by a group of local neighbourhood women who feed them twice a day, de-worm and flea them and take them to the vet as required. They’re famously reclusive except for around the times that they are normally fed – 10am and 4pm – and so luckily when we arrived in late afternoon they were out and about and up for a big smooch. Some of them were after a big smooch.

You can read more about the cats here.