Buenos Aires was in the throes of Southern Hemisphere springtime, with bold, budding purple jacaranda trees lining the boulevards. Genial locals filled up the sidewalks and plazas and flocked to countless city parks. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift was gearing up for her first concerts ever in Argentina, and the media and fans were in a frenzy.
But what I couldn't get over during an early November visit was how affordable everything was, at least for us tourists — a fact that concealed problems under the surface for Argentina.
Take our spacious corner king suite in the full-service boutique hotel Mio, with a big wooden soaking tub and wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows revealing the Euro-style streetscape. I reserved it online at $386 a night, but it later showed up on my credit card statement at $156.
Or an Argentine parilla (steakhouse) spread of juicy sirloin, salmon and frites with rice, pumpkin, a dollop of fried cheese, big bottles of beer and wine, and even more veggies for our baby. Using Argentine pesos I had wired to myself, the entire feast on the sidewalk patio at cash-only Las Cabras set me back about U.S. $38.
A fine leather handbag at Nimes, the kind of boutique you ring a bell to enter? Officially $350, but $108 for my partner.
Rides around the city via Uber, which is unauthorized but tolerated in Buenos Aires? $3 to $5 plus tips.
In short, Buenos Aires was downright cheap for us, even as Argentina was suffering under a whopping 140% inflation rate on the eve of a consequential presidential election. It may change very soon, but it was a dream scenario for any traveler accustomed to sticker shock abroad: a super strong U.S. dollar, combined with a special exchange rate just for tourists.
And to think that we owed this discovery to Taylor Swift.
The tourist dollar
When my partner, Sabrina, regretted missing Taylor's Eras Tour at home, I thought, "Well, where else is she playing?" International options included Mexico City (been there), Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires — the latter at legendary El Monumental, one of the largest soccer stadiums in the Americas. Swift was a good excuse to cross the so-called "Paris of the South" off our wish list.
Other reasons? The U.S. State Department rates Argentina a Level 1 — safer than most of Western Europe, and among the safest places in Latin America, a consideration when crossing the globe with an 11-month-old.
Sabrina's resale concert ticket on StubHub was not cheap, however, nor was our flight, because we did not buy them with pesos. (I'll explain in a bit.) The 10-hour final leg was particularly grueling with our sleeping 23-pound daughter on my lap. Bleary-eyed, the first thing I saw in baggage claim was a Visa ad promising "a special dollar rate for foreigners."
Money in Argentina is complicated, but because of a long-simmering economic crisis, there are many different exchange rates. One dollar would officially buy us about 350 pesos, but visitors have long been able to wire money or even buy pesos on the black market at much higher rates. So one year ago, the government made it legal and instituted the "tourist dollar" (also called the "MEP" dollar). Since then, if you pay for things in pesos with a foreign Visa or Mastercard, you'll get a wildly favorable exchange rate — about 860 pesos to the dollar while we were there, and more than 940 today.
It was all very confusing and required more economics reading than I usually do for a vacation. Bottom line: Our bills came to about a third of what we might have expected, leaving plenty of pesos for tips. Hopefully we helped stimulate the tourism economy, but it made us wonder if the tourist dollar was good or bad for Argentina.
Theoretical physics gives us the concept of the infinite universe, where everything imaginable goes on and on, well, forever. That was how I felt exploring the barrios of the ninth-largest city in the Americas, with 3 million inhabitants. Boulevards, plazas, cafes and leafy balcony-filled neighborhoods stretched to the horizons — all of it baby-friendly and easily plied by stroller. Street art blended with classic architecture, yet neighborhoods like Recoleta and Palermo maintained a posh character.
Two blocks from our hotel was the city's signature sight: Recoleta Cemetery, a labyrinth of Art Deco and Neo-Gothic crypts including the resting place of former First Lady Eva "Evita" Peron. I was particularly into how nearby modern high-rises — like a hulking green observation tower — struck a contrast above all this beautiful historic gloom.
We Ubered to the touristy Caminito, where brightly colored houses lined the pedestrian streets and wax figures of Lionel Messi and other soccer stars held aloft the FIFA World Cup trophy that Argentina bagged last year. From there, our walking tour took us to vinyl haven Eureka Records in San Telmo, where the owner was amazed at my baby's on-rhythm clapping to a Nina Simone cut.
Near the urban archaeology site El Zanjon de Granados, most adults were more interested in lining up for pictures with a statue of the beloved Mafalda, a "Peanuts"-like comic strip character. Eventually, we arrived at the gorgeously pink presidential palace Casa Rosada, where Evita once implored Argentina, from the balcony, not to cry for her — at least in Madonna's retelling. The national landmark was surrounded by security fencing.
In a nation known for governmental drama, 2023 has been no exception. While we were there, Argentina was preparing for a runoff election between what looked to an outsider like two bad choices: Minister of Economy Sergio Massa, a Peronist who arguably helped the country into its mess, and libertarian TV personality and wild-haired demagogue Javier Milei, who promised radical reforms such as switching from the peso to the dollar.
Could Milei even do that, and would it help? Most experts are skeptical. But my garrulous Uber driver Andres Esteban, the only Argentine who brought up politics with me, was all for a change. Complaining about the welfare state, he held up a bright orange 1,000-peso bill and lamented, "This is only $1!" Andres told me he was voting for Milei.
I asked if he liked the idea of Argentina undergoing "dollarization." "Why not?" he replied. "They did it in Ecuador and El Salvador. At this point, we have nothing to lose."
Sabrina reported that the Taylor Swift concert was an amazing communal experience among a record 68,000 fans — mostly screaming young Argentine women. I spent the evening on baby duty, wandering into the Recoleta Cultural Center, where Argentine abstract artists were on display and a hip-hop dance festival was breaking out in the halls. My daughter watched it all from her carrier, curiously.
The day after, we boarded a huge Buquebus passenger ferry for a one-hour cruise across the broad, brown Rio Plata for an overnight in Uruguay. The old town of Colonia del Sacramento was historic and charming, and we rented a quaint 18th-century house on the water. But it poured rain on our only night, and there was no Argentine tourist dollar discount.
For the second half of our trip, we checked into another hotel in the bustling Palermo Soho district. On a warm Sunday afternoon, we lived like Argentines, flocking to free attractions like the city botanical garden.
Families poured into the 44-acre Ecoparque, which reopened in 2018 as a more animal-friendly reimagining of the old city zoo. Patagonian maras, a sort of rabbit-like rodent, roamed the grounds freely, beside stealthy exhibits for giraffes and other species. My daughter had her first-ever ride on a classic carousel, with emotional support from the little girl on the horse beside her.
We crossed the wide avenue to the Rosedal, a regal garden of over 18,000 roses. A crowded "Greek Bridge" spanned the Lakes of Palermo, overlooking dozens of families gliding over the water in deluxe white paddleboats. Inflation or not, Argentines were enjoying Sunday life in a city that makes it easy to do so.
Days after we left, Argentina elected Javier Milei in a surprise landslide, and the country plunged into the economic unknown. As he takes office Dec. 11, it's unclear whether he'll try to "dollarize" the nation. If he's successful, he could beat inflation — and without pesos, there would presumably be no "tourist dollar" anymore. But his attempts at reform might also push the country further into crisis.
Whatever happens, I'm rooting for Argentina — a destination worth experiencing at any exchange rate.