Buenos Aires (BA, as the expats call it, and Baires as the locals often call it) is a massive city about the size of four Chicagos and with just under the metro population of New York City. Getting around as a traveler can be a bit overwhelming. While the city is vibrant, cultural and in general friendly, organization and efficiency is definitely not one of its strong points. Public transportation strikes are common, traffic can be an absolute mess, and timetables are never, ever to be relied on. Wherever you need to go, leave early…and then just expect everyone else to show up ridiculously late. With that being said, part of the charm of Argentina is it’s “go with the flow” attitude. Take a good heap of patience and flexibility, mix it with a strong sense of humor and you’ll be fine to dive right into the bus, taxi and subway systems of Buenos Aires.
One of your main resources in the city will be the government website BA Como Llego. Type in your starting spot, your destination, then it will show you detailed options (including subways, busses, and walking) for how to arrive and how long it may take. To ride the bus or the subway, you will need to first get a rechargeable SUBE travel card and charge it with credit. SUBE cards are available at subte stations, at eight Tourist Assistance Centers and at many "kioskos" (corner shops selling candy, soda and other basics) throughout the city. Cards can be charged with credit at all subte stations, national lottery outlets and at some kioskos with automated terminals. The SUBE website has a map of SUBE vendors. Fair warning - even if a shop says that it sells cards or recharges them, you might get there and they just for whatever reason do not. Or the system is not functioning. And they are not sure when it might function. Again, try not to look for it to make too much sense and just roll with it and go to the next option.
Most travelers arrive at Ezeiza International Airport and many are surprised to learn that it is so far (almost an hour) from the downtown area where they will most likely be staying. There are three main options to get into the city- walk outside the airport to take one of the many awaiting taxis and be prepared to get the inflated “gringo” price, call an Uber (they will ask to meet you in one of the parking lots, they will not come to the front of the airport), or take a very safe and reliable shuttle called Manuel Tienda Leon which usually runs approximately once an hour throughout the day and night. There is an office right as you walk out from customs where you can buy a ticket with either cash or credit card. While you pass through this area, grab some cash by exchanging dollars or withdrawing from an ATM. Taxis will only take cash, and many times throughout the city the credit card systems are down and cash will be the only way you can get by. Best to be prepared.
How to Ride the Subway (Subte)
The Buenos Aires subte is often the quickest way to get around the city because it avoids the traffic that busses or taxis can get into. There are six lines (lineas)—A, B, C, D, E, and H—which connect the city's main avenues, train stations, and bus stations. Lines A, B, C, D, and E all converge in the center of the city. The subte website has a detailed map of the network.
While the easiest and most affordable way to get around is with the SUBE card, individual tickets can be bought at the subte stations for a higher price. There is not much sense in publishing current prices, as Argentina has one of the highest inflation rates in the world, and prices increase multiple times a year.
Trains are said to run every three to ten minutes depending on the line, from about 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 6:00 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays, and 8:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Sundays and public holidays. Again, do not count on timetables. The trains show up when they show up.
Trains can get incredibly crowded at peak commuter times, and if you try to use manners, you will never get on the train. Push your way in, and be ready to get sweaty, especially in the summer months. Take extra care to watch your purse, backpack, or valuable belongings, as with so many bodies jostling close, this is a pickpocketer’s dream place to score a wallet or phone.
How to Ride the Bus
Known locally as "colectivos" and even more informally as "bondis," busses are a cheap way to get around the city, though not efficient in rush hour traffic hours. They run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, cover the whole city, and you'll rarely find yourself more than a few blocks from a stop.
The hardest part is to know when one will pass or to know what side of a two-way street your stop (parada) is on. There may be a stop with the same bus number, but one goes in one direction and the other the complete opposite, so make sure to ask locals or the driver before you get on.
Tell the bus driver where you are headed (it’s more helpful if you give a crossroad instead of an actual address), and he will select the correct fare. You then scan your SUBE card. Keep an eye out for how close you are to your stop, as the driver will not necessarily let you know when you have arrived.
Do keep in mind that the elderly, disabled, pregnant women, and anyone traveling with a baby or child gets precedence in the culture—meaning if you have a seat and there are none left, it's expected that you give up your place for them.
How to Get Around by Taxi
Buenos Aires is filled with licensed black and yellow taxis, and in busy areas, you’ll probably see one pass within a couple of minutes. If you see one with a “libre” sign lit up in the window, it means it is available to pick up passengers. Just stand at the curb and hold your hand up to flag it down.
Licensed taxis run on meters, and you will only be able to pay in Argentine pesos (ARS $). You will not make friends with the driver if you pay a small fare with a large bill—try to keep some smaller bills on you, as change is hard to come by in the city sometimes. It's appreciated if you can give a direction to the driver using the cross street; for example, instead of saying “Corrientes 585,” you would say “Corrientes y Florída.”
Taxis called remises can be booked in advance through agencies, although no local would do that. It’s easy enough to go to the street and hail one. You can also book regular taxis using the city government's mobile e-hailing app BA Taxi, although to be honest, Uber is a much better option. While it is in a grey area for legality in the city, the majority of the locals and tourists use Uber anyway to be able to travel around the city with less cash.
When your driver picks you up, go straight to the passenger seat, not the back seat, as they want to appear as hidden as possible to avoid problems with the local taxi union. Some will try to tell you that you need to pay in cash even if your account pays them by charging your card. Hold your ground, or you will end up paying twice. Many an unsuspecting tourist gives the driver a 100 percent cash bonus.
Other Transit Options in Buenos Aires
- Bike: Buenos Aires is perfect for exploring on a bike only for those who are used to riding in a big city. Otherwise, it is not for the faint of heart, as traffic rules are followed with a very devil-may-care attitude here. All in all, there are more than 124 miles of cycle lanes and a free public bike share system called Ecobici. Bikes can be taken for up to one hour Monday through Friday and up to two hours at the weekend (you can go for a second spin after a five-minute wait). Keep an eye on your time because if you go over, the system will block you for two days.
- Train: The train is a reliable option when it comes to reaching neighborhoods pretty far from the center, or visiting places in outskirts in the Provincia such as the Tigre river delta. Trains are a cheap way to travel a long distance, and you just get through the security turnstile using a SUBE card. Trains for Tigre and most other places leave from Retiro Train Station and pass through Belgrano C.
- Car: While renting a car to explore is an excellent option in most places in Argentina, it is particularly stressful trying to navigate the roads of Buenos Aires. No road rules are followed, road rage is a thing, and most local drivers seem to think that they are Italian race car drivers who can weave in and out of traffic with no regard for speed or lanes. Parking can be difficult in the city. You can either drive around for a very long time trying to get a spot on the road or pay to park in one of the few parking garages that are marked with a sign that says ‘Estacionamiento’ or just a big E. Many major car hire companies operate at both Ezeiza and Aeroparque (Jorge Newbery) airport. To rent a car, you need to be over 21 years of age, have owned a driver’s license for at least two years, and pay by credit card.
- Walking: Walking is perfectly fine in most parts of the city as long as you are not wearing expensive, flashy jewelry, have a professional camera dangling around your neck, or flaunting an iPhone. While it is not a city with much violent crime, theft (especially of electronics) is a common occurrence. If you need to check something on your phone, duck into a restaurant or bathroom to do so safely. This is not a city for those with mobility issues. Sidewalks are cracked, uneven, and often full of dog poop. Those with a walker or a wheelchair would be better off getting around in a taxi.
- Cross Country Buses: Those who are used to the dodgy standards of American buses will be pleasantly surprised at the comfort of busses in Argentina. Splurge for the Cama category, and you will get a seat that reclines back much like a first-class seat on an airplane. Meals are often given, including wine with dinner, and entertainment is provided in the form of movies (usually in Spanish, of course). Plataforma 10 is a website that can help you see what bus companies go where, and you can buy tickets on the spot. Do know that you have to physically print out your ticket and arrive with a paper copy. Keep your passport handy when traveling by bus, because some border control stops will ask you to present it.
- Flying: If you book early enough, flights can rival the price of a bus ticket and can shave days off of some road trip journeys (especially those planning to travel to Patagonia). While Aerolineas Argentina sometimes offers cheaper fares, they also often go on strike, leaving passengers stranded for days. It’s often worth spending a bit more to book with the more reliable LATAM.
- Ferries: With Uruguay right across the river, an easy day trip to Colonia is possible by boat through Buquebus, which leaves from Puerto Madero.
Tips for Getting Around
- Always carry some cash, as many restaurants and shops won’t take cards, or the system can often be down. Don’t bring enough cash to mess up your trip if you happen to get pickpocketed.
- Keep a close eye on your electronics at all times, especially phones.
- Argentines, in general, are very friendly and patient with the limited Spanish of a tourist. With a good attitude, an address written down on paper, and some hand gestures, you will be fine.
- Argentines often drive fast, aggressively, and with no regard for rules. They love to honk the horn. This is normal for them, and they all somehow get through, so just trust they know what they are doing.
- Be as low-key as possible when using Uber, as it’s still a touchy situation with the local taxi drivers. When meeting your Uber driver, get directly in the front passenger seat.