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Everything You Need to Know Before You Study Abroad in Buenos Aires

July 5, 2010

Tonight someone instant messaged me on Facebook to ask for some advice about studying abroad in Buenos Aires. She will be studying abroad in the same program as I am (API) and arriving in less than a week. As I talked to her I realized how much I have learned already about this city and how to prepare for studying here. I also remember distinctly how difficult it was to guess or figure all of this out in advance so I want to help others in that position out as much as possible!…

While my Pre-Departure Tips for Studying Abroad will definitely get you started, I want to supplement those with my newfound knowledge in hopes that I can answer some of the million questions you surely have right now. I am going to this in Q&A format to make it easy to find what you’re looking for. If you still have questions after you read this, feel free to comment or email me and I’ll be happy to help answer them for you. 🙂

Q:   What do I pack?!

A:    This is hands-down the questions I hear most often. Some of this will only apply for the summer months (winter in Argentina; remember the seasons are reversed!) but hopefully some of it will also help you if you are studying here any time of year. Also, this is obviously geared toward girls but some of this will apply to  guys as well.

DO pack:

  • Jeans. Preferably dark wash skinny or boot cut if you want to fit in with the current style here. 3 or 4 pairs should be good if you don’t plan on buying more here. Enough to get you through a week, assuming you’ll wear them twice each and do laundry once a week.
  • Shirts and sweaters you can layer. I brought neutral tank tops to wear under my sweaters and other shirts (you won’t see anyone in a tank top by itself), several light sweaters, and a couple of t-shirts for day-to-day. So far this has worked great. You won’t need a really heavy sweater from what I can tell so far. Just things you can layer if it’s cold and unlayer if it’s a warmer day.
  • Enough underwear and socks to last you 10 days-2 weeks. Although you’ll probably do laundry (or have it done, depending on your host family) once a week, this is always a good packing rule of thumb.
  • A couple of nicer shirts for going out. I brought a couple of dresses as well but haven’t worn them and don’t foresee doing so anytime soon. This is largely a matter of preference but I like to fit in with the locals as much as possible, and I haven’t seen many dresses so far. Jeans and a nice shirt is pretty much standard, or maybe a long shirt and tights. Sometimes you’ll see short skirts with tights as well.  Also, make sure the shirts aren’t too low cut. In general, I’ve notced that porteños dress more modestly than we do in the United States.
  • Tights and long shirts. If this is your style, do it! I have seen more women wearing long shirts with tights and boots here than I can count. Either way, bring some tights. They are also great for layering or wearing with dresses.
  • Flat boots, other flats, a pair of sneakers/tennis shoes and maybe a pair of high heeled boots. So the shoes you bring are going to depend on the season and whether or not you want to shop while you are here (there is AMAZING boot shopping here). However, I recommend bringing at least one pair of flat boots and/or another pair of flats (I have ballet flats, which have worked well). Boots are pretty much the uniform here and you are going to do a lot of walking. If sneakers are more your style or you plan on working out, those are also very common here. I brought high heeled boots which I mostly wear for going out but I haven’t seen any high heels (other than boots) at all.
  • A light jacket and a fleece or something around that level of warmth. I brought a fleece and a windbreaker and those have been perfect. On particularly cold days I can layer them (rarely needed) but I usually just wear one or the other. You really don’t need anything warmer than a fleece if you layer well. I usually even get hot in mine when I’m walking around the city all day. The windbreaker has also helped out a lot on drizzly days.
  • A purse that you can wear diagonal across your body. By that I mean slung over your opposite shoulder (I’m sure there’s a word for that but I can’t think of it). Theft is pretty common here and a purse over just one shoulder can be easily grabbed. It’s not a must-have but it definitely makes me feel more comfortable. I brought one that’s a decent size so I can carry a snack, a waterbottle, and my textbook to school in it. If you would rather carry a backpack that’s cool too, but be prepared to wear it over one shoulder and held in front of your body (that’s just the way everyone does it here).
  • A camera and a journal. The first for obvious reasons. And if you don’t usually keep a journal, I recommend starting one. It’s so worth it.
  • Any medicines you are used to taking, and some good tough-stick band aids. Although you can probably find an equivalent medicine here, you will not want to be searching for something if you get sick or get a migraine. I brought advil, daytime and night time theraflu and allergy medicine, and have made use of all but the last already (unfortunately I got a bad cold this week). The band-aids are for blisters if you aren’t used to walking a lot or buy a new pair of boots. Get the tough-stick. They are worth the extra couple of bucks.
  • Tampons with applicators. I know this is awkward to talk about ladies (and any gentlemen who might be reading this), but they only have the manual kind here. If you use the type with applicators bring enough to last you for the whole time you are here.
  • Peanut butter. If this is something you can’t live without. Apparently you can find it here but it’s rare and probably a lot more expensive. I don’t need it but some people do.
  • A small gift for your host family. Something personal or specific to your region is good. Or something personal to you. I brought a little table book with photos of Austin. Chocolates or candy are always a good choice too. Go with your gut instinct on this and don’t spend more than $20. If your host family has kids, you might consider bringing them separate gifts. Little toys or gadgets do the trick just fine, and candy works great here too.
  • Pictures of your family.
  • One or two adapters. Argentina has two different kinds of plugs. Do your research and bring two universal adapters or one of each kind.
  • A good book for the plane. And maybe more than one if you can’t read in Spanish. I’m sure there are English book stores but you won’t be able to find a book in English at the average book store here. So if you’re a big reader, bring a couple to get you started.
  • Any toiletries you feel you can’t buy here. By that I mean anything super specific to you. If you can’t live without your special moisturizer, bring plenty of it. But as with almost everywhere in the world, you can easily buy shampoo and other toiletries when you get here.

Alright I’m sure there’s more but that’s all I can think of right now. Now for the don’t packs. These are of course just my recommendations. If you disagree, go with your gut feeling. No one can tell you what’s right for you. These are just my observations and what I’ve heard from other people.

DON’T pack:

  • High heels. Unless you can’t live without them, and like walking a lot in heels. You can certainly wear them here if you want but like I said, I haven’t seen any yet. High heeled boots are the exception to this.
  • Very low-cut shirts or other overly sexy attire. Again, the average dress here seems to be more modest than in the U.S. This may be a winter thing but there is no reason to make yourself stand out too much in this way (unless you want to attract that kind of attention). Bring clothes that make you feel pretty, but don’t go overboard with slinky shirts or dresses.
  • Too many toiletries. Again, you can buy most of this here for about the same price. If you are trying to save space, skip the shampoo.
  • Flat irons or hair dryers. I don’t use them but I’ve heard they burn out due to the different voltage here. To be safe, leave them at home and buy new ones here.
  • Tank tops (except to layer), shorts, or flip flops. These just aren’t worn here, even when it’s warm. Stick with tanks for layering only. Go with capris in lieu of shorts if you must bring something. And sandals are fine for warm weather but from what I know flip flops aren’t common here.
  • Valuable jewelry or anything with sentimental value. Theft rates are pretty high in Buenos Aires and expensive jewelry can make you an instant target. It’s also never a good idea to pack something that has a lot of sentimental value for you when you travel. It’s too easy to lose things along the way.
  • Your smart phone. Unless you want to pay the rates, or you use it as an iPod too. I brought mine to use as an alarm and iPod but because of the theft rates here I usually leave it at home. I turned off my phone and internet before I left and I always keep it on airplane mode, just to be safe. It is easy to get a pay-as-you go cell phone here and the rates aren’t bad at all (this is true in most countries where you’ll study abroad). Use Skype to talk internationally. I can’t say this enough times: if you don’t have it, get it. It’s so simple to use and it’s totally free! www.Skype.com

Q:   What’s it like living with a host family?

A:   Everyone’s experience will be different, because every host family is different. I absolutely love it and nearly everyone I’ve talked to has had a great experience so far as well. Most programs are great about pairing you with a family that is a fit for you and putting you in a good part of town. In the unlikely case that you have a terrible experience, you can always ask to change host families. Living with a host family is an amazing way to practice your Spanish and learn and experience more of the culture firsthand. It also gives a much more personal feel to the experience, which is great when you start missing home. There’s something about a home-cooked meal that just makes everything better. 🙂 In other words, don’t worry! You’ll love it and probably keep in touch with your host family for years to come.

Q:   How much money will I spend?

A:   How much money you’ll spend will depend totally on what you want to do. With my program, breakfast and dinner are included everyday and you obviously won’t have to worry about housing or tuition. However, you will have to pay for lunch everyday as well as any shopping, eating out, entertainment, and travel expenses. I have probably spent an average of $10-$20 per day since I got here (more on weekends or when shopping), but I have eaten out and done a lot. Now that the initial excitement of wanting to see and do everything NOW is starting to wear off, I intend to cut back though. I think the best way to do this is to figure out how much you have for your time here, divide that by the number of weeks you are here and use that number as your weekly budget. Take that much out in cash and only allow yourself to use that each week. HOWEVER, this doesn’t factor in travel budgeting. You may want to set a montly amount for this and minus that out of your budget for that month. I’m taking my first trip this weekend so I’ll write more on this when I do.

The moral of the story is that you can spend as little or as much as you want. Empanadas are about $1 USD each and the subway and busses cost about 25 cents USD each time you ride them, so you can live off less than $2 a day here if you really have to (a bit of an exaggeration, but just to make a point). Clothes are about the same, although you can find some really good deals if you shop around. Food is generally cheaper but not that much. Drinks are cheap (especially wine and beer) if you buy them at a store, and not too bad when you go out either (depending on where you’re from they may be a little more or less than you’re used to). Movies cost about $6 USD. Taxis aren’t bad at all (maybe $3-$7 USD on average; more if you are going to a totally different part of town).

Q:   What’s the best way to get money?

A:   In my opinion, the best way to get money is to take it out of an ATM. Check with your bank to find out their international withdrawal fees. This will typically be around $5 per withdrawal, plus a 1% conversion fee. The ATM here will charge you an additional 16 pesos or so (about $4 USD). Take out at least 1000 pesos at a time (around $250 USD) to make the fees worth it. Converting money can get even more expensive because they take a percentage of every transaction. And using your credit card or debit card can also incur some nasty fees. Be sure to check on these in advance, but always have cash as a backup as credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere here. And remember, let your bank know you will be traveling abroad before you leave! You don’t want an unexpected freeze on your account when you need access to your money!

A little tip (that our resident director told us) for withdrawing money: Take out 10 pesos less than you actually want. So if you want 1000 pesos, ask for 990. This way, the ATM will give you smaller change and you won’t have to walk around looking for somewhere to break your 100s.

Q:   Are textbooks expensive?

A:   No. My textbook for the intensive language month cost about $10 USD. I haven’t bought any others yet, but I have heard they are also very reasonable.

Q:   My program offers a cell phone option. Should I get it?

A:   From what I’ve heard, the cell phone options offered by most programs aren’t great. You’ll probably be better off waiting until you get here and buying a pay-as-you-go phone. Mine was under $50 USD and I just put money on my sim card whenever I run out. This also helps you to budget your phone and avoid racking up crazy unexpected costs if you have a plan that is linked to a credit card. Avoid using your cell phone for international calling, as the rates will probably be pretty exorbitant.

Q:   What’s the best way to keep in touch with my family and friends back home?

A:   As far as keeping in touch with your family and friends over the “phone,” get Skype (www.skype.com)!! Again, I stress that it is FREE and super EASY to use. If you are still stubborn enough not to take my advice in this, or are just really attached to talking on a telephone, you can buy a phone card here to talk to your family from a land line for fairly reasonable rates. Other than that, good ol’ email and Facebook work just fine. If you don’t have internet access in your home you can go to a cafe that has wifi or a locutorio (internet cafe) to get online. You may also want to consider starting a blog so that you can keep everyone who is interested updated at once. This helps to avoid writing essentially the same email to 10 different people. Just say hi and send them a link to your blog! The site I use is www.wordpress.com. It’s free and really easy to get the hang of, as are most of the other blog sites out there.

Q:   I’m arriving early to the airport. What do I do until my program comes to pick me up? Are there ATMs at the airport?

A:   It will take you a while to go through customs (don’t forget about the $140 entry fee!) and collect your bags. Once you have done so you will exit past baggage claim into the general pick-up area of the airport. If you are still early, there are plenty of cafes to wait in for a while. And yes, there are ATMs and places to convert money. Make sure you know where you are meeting your group and what time so that you don’t get stuck having to take a cab by yourself. If you do end up having to take a cab, make sure you know where you are going and get a cab from the stand outside (not just any cab you happen to see).

Alright so that’s it for the questions I have gotten so far. If there is something I didn’t answer here please comment and let me know, so I can include it in a future post! Before I say goodnight, here’s a little update on what I’ve been up to this week . . .

A Brief Update

All in all an amazing week, but it definitely had its ups and downs. Some of the highs included: starting my internship (which I love), spending an amazing Saturday afternoon walking and shopping in Plaza Francia (my favorite spot in Buenos Aires so far. The market there on the weekends is not to be missed), going out to a few restaurants and bars with friends, seeing Eclipse (don’t make fun of me, it’s a guilty pleasure movie and it reminds me of home) and meeting some new people. Some lows included: getting sick (I had a bad cold, missed a day of classes and work, and little remnants just won’t go away), discovering that my camera battery charger doesn’t work and it will likely be about $50 and take 15 days to get a new one, breaking my glasses, and Argentina getting eliminated from the World Cup.

Despite the lows, I am having an incredible time and making more memories than I can believe! Two weeks seems like an eternity ago but I also know the next 4 1/2 months are going to pass by faster than I want. In the meantime, I’m just trying to soak it up as much as I can. This week we are having a cooking class (an API program event) where we will learn to make empanadas, and Thursday night we are taking an overnight bus to Iguazu Falls for our first trip! It’s not program-sponsored so it should be a bit of an adventure, but I can’t wait! I also plan to take a tango lesson this week which I will hopefully be continuing to do at least once a week while I’m here.

Alright it’s 1:30AM and I still haven’t done my homework for tomorrow so I have to go for tonight. I apologize for the lack of pictures lately (I know how boring all this text can be without pictures to illustrate what I’m talking about), but this camera situation has sort of thrown me for a loop. Hopefully I’ll get it figured out soon and in the meantime, I may ask permission to use some of my friend’s pictures on my blog for a while, so look out for some in my next post! I have some really fun & exciting ideas for blog posts so keep an eye out for those ENLIGHTENING and ENTERTAINING posts in the next few weeks!

Safe travels!

Happy and procrastinating,
Makena

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2010 7:18 am

    Hi Makena! Wow, this was a great post! I really enjoyed reading it and I shared this with my followers on Twitter and StumbleUpon.

    Keep the updates coming!

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • July 7, 2010 2:10 am

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks so much! It took a long time to write so I’m glad people are enjoying it! 🙂 Haha. I love sharing all the little tips and tricks I’m learning with the world.

      I am working on that interview now and will be sending it to you shortly! Thanks so much for keeping up with my blog.

      All the best,
      Makena

  2. July 6, 2010 3:01 pm

    Great tips Makena – Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Erin permalink
    July 20, 2010 10:10 pm

    I found this on Google, and it was sooo helpful! I am leaving for study abroad in Argentina in a couple days, and this answered some of my biggest questions. My only other question is should I get a phone? I’ll only be there for a month, and I am not sure it’s worth it. How often do you use yours? Are there other ways to contact your family to tell them you won’t be home for dinner or whatever? Thanks!!

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