Buenos Aires

buenos aires microcentro

Microcentro, the bustling center of Buenos Aires

Due to lower costs and a persistent shortage of tech workers at home, US-based technology companies have a long history of sending work abroad (off-shoring) to countries like China and India. Those places have always presented some challenges (not just time zones, but cultures as well), and many companies haven’t seen the kind of benefits they hoped for. A growing trend is to instead work with countries in Central and South America, a practice called “near-shoring”, a region with the definite advantage of having roughly the same working hours as those in North America (give or take few hours).

Over the last year my employer has gotten into the near-shoring game, and more than half of my closest teammates are now in Argentina. No matter how good technology gets, relationships, both business and personal, always seem to go more smoothly if you can meet in person. Thus, I recently returned from a working trip to Buenos Aires. There was, of course, a training element to the visit, but the main goal was to get to know my colleagues and return with a better understanding of how we can build a successful partnership with them. Of course, I built in as much non-working time as I could in an attempt get to know the city.

Retiro architecture

Cool old architecture in the city’s Retiro neighborhood

Buenos Aires is Argentina’s huge, chaotic, and vibrant capital city. At 13 Million people, “BA” is one of the largest and most visited cities in the Americas, is the undisputed power center of Argentina and, in some ways the economic hub of all of South America. It prides itself on being “European”, is known for its culture and character, and holds a spot on many world travelers’ list of places to visit.

It’s nearly impossible to read about travel to Buenos Aires without seeing the city introduced as “The Paris of South America.” I’m usually a bit skeptical when I hear comparisons like that, and in this case it’s warranted: it’s a phrase that makes no sense. First, comparing any city to Paris is an injustice to the French capital, which is easily amongst the most beautiful, refined, and atmospheric cities I’ve visited, and one of the few places that actually lives up to the hype that surrounds it.

But the phrase does a great injustice to Buenos Aires as well, which has enough charm, culture, and uniqueness that it deserves to just be Buenos Aires, full stop. It doesn’t need to play second fiddle to a far-off place that it doesn’t much resemble and that it has little in common with. BA stands on its own as a world-class city, one that can serve up a huge variety of experiences and memories.

Galerias Pacifico christmas tree

A Christmas tree (anachronistically in mid-summer), in Galerias Pacifico, a classic shopping center built in the 1880’s

I’ll start with some of the basics. Buenos Aires, which means “fair winds”, is as far south of the equator as Los Angeles is north of it. It’s a 9+ hour flight from Houston, or 10+ from New York. It’s located along a huge, shallow and slow-moving river called the Rio de la Plata (“the River of Silver”) close to where the river empties into the Atlantic. Like everywhere in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed, so my December trip brought me there in early summer; temps were in the upper 80s F and humid.

Embajada de Francia

The French Embassy

The vast majority of porteños (BA residents, literally “people of the port”) are descended from Spanish and Italian immigrants that flocked here in the 1800s. They speak a dialect of Spanish called Rioplatense Castellan which has a number of differences from the Mexican Spanish we’re more used to: Argentines pronounce certain letters differently, pepper their language with Italian words & phrases, and, most notably, have adopted Italian’s rhythmic singsongy quality. To my ear, Spanish in Argentina sounded almost like a different language; one that’s softer and more laid-back than the Spanish of Central America.

Although my colleagues are able to speak English well, the average porteño doesn’t seem to understand much of it beyond some basic food-related things. American tourists seem to be far less common in Buenos Aires than in European capitals, which I find refreshing: it’s fun and rewarding to hack through interactions with locals without them immediately switching to English. The porteños I engaged with were almost universally friendly and warm, although they’re calmer and less outgoing than some other Latin cultures.

Because of its size and wide mix of neighborhoods, it’s hard to really describe what the city is like…but I’ll try.

Casa Rosada

Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace

A courtyard in Casa Rosada

A courtyard in Casa Rosada

There are some beautiful and charming old buildings and impressive architecture, but those are the exceptions (like I said, it’s not Paris). The majority of the buildings are rather plain and unremarkable, some are ugly and in disrepair. The central neighborhoods of the city are very dense, bustling, and at times are intensely crowded… Tokyo came to mind more than once. Those aren’t places where you stroll slowly and daydream; the crowds, broken sidewalk tiles, and nasty traffic force you to be alert. But walking there can also be fun and exciting, and the people-watching opportunities are excellent.

Microcentro street scene

Typical street scene in Microcentro, the main business district

Street market in San Telmo

Street market in San Telmo, the city’s old bohemian neighborhood

San Telmo architecture

San Telmo has tons of cool old buildings like this one

Apartments in Retiro

Apartments in Retiro, one of the most upscale parts of the city

Recoleta architecture

Recoleta, the city’s most upscale neighborhood and, with its green space, a pleasant one for strolling

Just outside the immediate center are a variety of areas that, although calmer than Centro, are still dense by US standards (think 7-10 story buildings) and that remain bustling until late. There’s also San Telmo, the “old town” with classically European yet dilapidated buildings and colorful street market. There’s even an expensive new area, Puerto Madero, where glass-and-steel skyscrapers rise from the site of the former docklands and stand in startling contrast to the rest of the city.

Puente de la Mujer

Puente de la Mujer (“Women’s Bridge”)

Puerto Madero

Puerto Madero, BA’s revitalized and snazzy harbor area

We spent most of our non-working days and hours walking around the city seeing the various sites. Puerto Madero was great for an evening stroll. Recoleta was enjoyable at all times, especially the beautiful Recoleta Cemetery (pictures below), which is the place I’d go if I had only one day to spend in BA. San Telmo’s bustling Sunday street market was fun, and I wished we had more time in trendy Palermo, which is practically a city within a city.

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery

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Recoleta Cemetery

One of the many “streets” in the Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery panorama

Panorama from inside the Recoleta Cemetery

Books, articles, and even non-porteño Argentinians sometimes portray Buenos Aires as being dangerous. I’m sure that’s true in some places at some times, but overall the city was far less sketchy than I expected. With the dense crowds it’s easy to see how opportunistic pickpocketing could be a problem, but I kept a careful eye on my valuables while in public and had no problems whatsoever. In the half-dozen or so tourist neighborhoods I felt at least as safe (and sometimes safer than) in the downtowns of major US cities like New York or Chicago. If you’ve ever spent time on foot in or around San Francisco’s Civic Center, Buenos Aires will be a breeze for you.

Parilla at Cabaña Las Lilas

Parilla (grill) at Cabaña Las Lilas, one of Argentina’s best steakhouses

Cafe Tortoni

Cafe Tortoni, one of BA’s few remaining classic Parisian-style cafes

After talking to friends and colleagues about their Argentina experiences, I was prepared for the food to be… uninspiring. It was indeed mediocre in some places, but by doing our research, sticking to cosmopolitan neighborhoods, and being willing to spend a little more than average on dining, we were able to find some excellent meals. The current exchange rate makes food less expensive than in the US, although it’s definitely not “sell-my-stuff-and-live-like-a-king-in-Argentina-for-the-rest-of-my-life” cheap.

When it comes to eating, Argentines have no love lost on items like seafood, vegetables, spice, or anything foreign (even black pepper is too much for them, and isn’t widely available). Steak is the name of the game: Argentines eat more beef per capita than any other country, and it’s all local. The huge grassland that makes up the central portion of the country is blanketed by ranches producing high-quality meat. Steakhouses are easy to find, and the ones we tried were very good.

As I mentioned, relationship-building was the main purpose of my trip, and I consider it a huge success from that perspective. Argentines in general, and all of my new colleagues in particular, are very friendly and warm people who went out of their way to make sure we had a good time. They have a lot in common with Italians – they’re talkative and expressive, and conversations flow easily – but they’re somewhat less effusive than many other Latin cultures.

Hotel Colonial, San Nicolas

Hotel Colonial, in the town of San Nicolas, site of an impressive company party

We had the good fortune to be there on the weekend of the company party, which was perhaps the most memorable part of the trip. We took a 3-hour bus ride to an grand old colonial hotel in the town of San Nicolas, where we met with colleagues from other offices around Argentina – including some that I interact with every day but have never met in person. There were around 300 people total; I knew maybe 10 of them prior to the party.

Company party

Company Party

We arrived around 9pm and sipped drinks on a large veranda in the muggy evening air. The sit-down dinner bgan around 11pm – common dinner hour in Argentina – and each course was separated by an hour or so break for dancing and socializing. After we finished dessert around 3am, a round of fireworks temporarily drew us back out onto the veranda before dolled-up Brazilian dancers (think Carnival) and their accompanying drum corps brought us back to the dance floor. Around 5am, when the party was scheduled to wind down, breakfast was served in the form of roast beef sliders (perfect after a long night, actually). Pacing yourself was definitely the name of the game, but that seemed to come as second nature to Argentines. None of them ever appeared visibly drunk despite the massive pile of empty bottles of wine, rum, and fernet, the local favorite liquor.

Our bus didn’t drop us at our hotel until after 10am, just in time to catch a bit of sleep before beginning another day’s exploration in Buenos Aires. It was far and away the best work-related party I’ve ever been to, and one I won’t soon forget. In fact the entire trip was excellent; I’m already pulling strings to go back next year.

My entire Buenos Aires photo album is available on Flickr.

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