Expat Heaven? And other Superlatives!

In the few months running upto March 2008, and I am sure to-be-continued for a while longer if not for a long time, travel magazines including the New York Times travel section have been running a number of articles on the pleasures of Buenos Aires. Especially the food and the great deal for the those who hold their assets denominated in the plummeting US Dollar. On both counts - food as well great deals, a caution is in order simply because of the excessive press Buenos Aires is getting, and these articles do not provide any caveats, so this posting is on the caveats. Other postings on this web site describe all the good stuff, so here are all the warnings.

There was a time, probably until 2005, when expats found that their US$ went quite far in Buenos Aires. But alas, good things have to come to an end, inflation is quite high in Argentina. By 2008, while things are still good when converting between US$ and AR$, it is no longer such a slam-dunk as it was earlier. In fact, in just 1 year, from March of 2007 to 2008, prices seem to have gone up drastically.

Anecdotal evidence: a AR$3 fresh orange juice glass at the San Telmo fair is now AR$5. All prices in even recent guide books can be 50-100% lower than actual prices. Real estate in nice areas is comparable to US cities with much less of a difference in costs. And the prognostication seems to be for continued high inflation. Ugi's is a inexpensive pizza-chain in Buenos Aires and they have every need to have the best price so it is instructive to see how the price of the Ugi's pizza has changed:
Feb 2008: AR$9.20p for a 30cm mozaralla pizza.
2007: AR$6.80
2006: AR$4.80. Thus, in 2 years, price has gone up nearly 100%! Still a good price in US$, which went from around US$1.50 to US$3. Note that this is Ugi's pizza, if you want pizza at Filo on San Martin, that will put you back around US$15 for a large.
So, visitors looking for a bargain should make the trip here fast - Buenos Aires has been listed in many recent magazines as the one place where the US$ still goes far - it is still true even though the going may not as good as it was just a year or three ago. Things still look incredibly good for the Euro and the Brazilian Real, so it is only US expats that are at a disadvantage!

Food disclaimers. As far as food goes, the beef here is unquestionably great. But how much grilled beef can one eat? One word that can be used to describe most food here is bland. Given that there are so many guides that extol food in Buenos Aires, as do most pages at even this web site itself, it is important to set correct expectations. So, here's a list of things that should not surprise you when you visit Buenos Aires:
1) Bland food. This may be just fine for many tourists, but certainly the range as well as deals are not as good as one can get in New York or Montréal - yes, even in expensive New York one can find excellent food at decent prices. At the mid to high end, going for US$20-30 and more for a main plate and dessert, one can find good places in Buenos Aires where the word bland may not always apply, but it has always been my take that expensive food is the same all over the world, and even if one could afford it, that type of food is not something to be eaten every day. The whole point of a great food city is to find the eateries that locals frequent all the time and judge the quality of the food in the city based on that. By this measurement, food in Buenos Aires is not very interesting - notwithstanding the numerous blogs on this topic on the web that talk glowingly of the food in Buenos Aires. The word bland is the best description of food in general here, even in places that claim to be spicy.
Palermo is the hip place for restaurants - but it is all designer digs and designer food, not something you would want to eat every day. It is good looking food, though!
2) Amazingly uninspired bread. This puzzles me, if Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, and most cooks say that it is not hard to make good bread, how come bread is universally poor tasting here? Very puzzling. It is dry, or tough. Most of the time it is not freshly made, and even in places where it was just made, it still did not improve on the texture of flavor. Oh well. Best option here: go for the medialunas, the croissants are great.
3) Grilling. Many blogs write glowingly of so many parillas. I am not into eating achuras, or too much fat and gristle in meat, I stick to the tenderloin cut, it is called lomo in Buenos Aires. Many of the parillas that are written about in guides and blogs are not that interesting - they may have good meat, but it is grilled too simply. I like a nice strongly seared crust and pink in the center. Amazingly, it took me a while to find such a place - Dada Bistro in Microcentro and Cluny in Palermo, and they not only had good beef, it was seared and grilled nicely.
3) Fruits and Vegetables are not good. For long stays, I like to locate a good grocery and make sure to have good local fruits in my apartment, to counter-act the daily intake of restaurant food, but more importantly to sample the local vegetables. Certainly, nothing like Marché Jean-Talon in Montreal can be found here,
and there is no such thing as a local vegetable here, as far as I can tell - everything is from Brazil?! The fruits and vegetable stores are few, with very sad-looking fruits and vegetables and even then the prices seem to be the same as in the US$ back in the US, with much poorer quality.

Real Estate. In terms of real estate, there is still a wide range of prices depending on the neighborhood but a general sense seems to be that the prices have gone up very rapidly in the last few years. And living here means making sure you take inflation into account - one blog had a pretty good breakdown of living cost increases.
New York Times - Argentine Nights is a good example of the type of article and blog entry seen so often - it talks about being drawn by the cheap prices and then at the and end lists many hotels and restaurants that cannot really be counted in the "cheap price" category!
Good information on living cost increases and other nicely written, frank articles about the good and the not-so-good is at this blog: TangoSpam - Tomatoes por Favor?.

So, this posting was about the caveats, which have to clarified to balance out the current media hype. But part of the hype is still true - some of the great, amazing things in Buenos Aires are described in detail in the other postings at this web site.