I’ve been in Buenos Aires for about a month now, and although I can’t quite call myself a porteña, I like to think I’ve got a handle on life here in Argentina‘s famous port city and capital. I haven’t gotten lost in a solid two weeks, I’m a regular at the little pandería near the University of Belgrano, and yesterday a cab driver complimented me on my Spanish.
If you’re thinking about studying abroad in or traveling independently to Buenos Aires, don’t be too intimidated. I am an unusually terrible map-reader and at times a nervous introvert, so it’s very likely that you’re already better off than I was to begin with. Plus, you have me to give you some advice before you leave! Because navigating the city was one of my greatest challenges when I first arrived, I’ve made a short list below of things you should and should not do regarding public transportation in Buenos Aires. I hope it will help you with your adjustment to the porteño lifestyle and make you’re experience here a bit more relaxing!
DO use a map.
DO buy a Sube card. This is probably the most valuable piece of advice I can give you for your stay in Buenos Aires. Sube cards can be purchased and charged at almost every kiosko around the city, and they work like a pre-paid, multiple-use tickets for the city’s busses, subways and trains. Without a Sube card, you have to wait in line to purchase single-use passes at a counter each time you enter a subway or train station, and if you board a bus without a Sube card, you have to pay the fare in coins. Having a Sube card saves you a ton of time and stress, and it saves you money too because public transportation prices are discounted for Sube users.
DON’T try to register your Sube online. The guy who sold me my Sube card told me that I would need to register it online if I wanted to use it for longer than one month, so I followed the link printed on the back of the card and tried to do as he recommended. Little did I know, however, that only Argentines have the eight-digit DNI number necessary to do so, and I ended up spending about 45 minutes trying to figure out why I couldn’t make the ninth digit of my passport number fit into the online registration form. Yes, as it turns out, it is impossible for Americans to register their Sube cards online; but fortunately, I have friends who claim that they’ve been using their cards for significantly longer than one month and that they’ve not yet been deactivated.
DO use your Sube card, even when its value is near zero. I’m going to use a hypothetical situation to demonstrate the value of this “do”: Let’s say you only have 50 centavos left on your Sube card and you’re running late for class. You don’t want to spend the extra five minutes it takes to recharge your card at the counter, but you don’t have a choice. Yes, you do have a choice. I’ve charged up to -$7.50 on my Sube card without any problems. I’ve been told you can charge up to -$10.00.
DON’T use the subte at rush hour, unless you’re already confident in your skills as city-navigator or are accompanied by someone who is. Between the sound of the subway cars on the tracks and the constant chatter of your temporary neighbors, it’s impossible to hear the loudspeaker announce the upcoming stations. You can also give up any hope of seeing out your subway car’s windows to view signage. It’s highly likely that all you’ll be able to see is the sweatshirt of the guy standing in front of you, and there will be very little room with which to improve your predicament.
DO wear you’re backpack backwards on the subte. It doesn’t look ridiculous, I promise; everybody does it because everybody knows how easy it is for thieves in a crowded subte to subtly poke their hands into pockets outside of your visual range.
DON’T eat the candy that some vendor will surely set in your lap if you’re lucky enough to be sitting down on the subte. Yes, vendors will literally set their goods in your lap, and any inexperienced subte-rider will think that stuff is free. It’s not, and I can guarantee you that two to three minutes after he sets it on your leg, the vendor will be back to either re-collect it or charge you 10 pesos.
DO talk to locals. The vast majority of the people I’ve met in Buenos Aires are extremely friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the transit system. They’ll be happy to give you directions if you ask politely and don’t mind talking a little bit about where you are from.
DON’T take a taxi unless you are hopelessly lost, in which case taking a taxi to a familiar address is a great idea, or nowhere near any other form of transportation. Taxis have some benefits: they’re relatively fast, and the drivers love to chat with you. The buses and subways, however, are significantly less expensive. Imagine how many more souvenirs you’ll be able to buy with all the money you save by taking buses instead of taxis!
DO use CómoLlego. Not knowing which colectivo to take is not a problem as long as you have access to the internet because CómoLlego is like MapQuest for the carless urban Argentine.
DON’T be afraid to get lost. It sucks to be lost when you’re on a tight schedule, but being lost can be fun if you’ve got a bit of time on your hands. Trust me, I know it’s stressful, but what happens happens. You should try to make the best of it! Who knows? You might discover a cool local restaurant or stumble upon an awesome pair of shoes in some hole-in-the-wall shop window.