Buenos Aries as a Retirement Option
Having spent a week in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I thought it would be interesting to investigate the city as a potential retirement location. My previous submission on Nicaragua gained some interest, and BA seemed an interesting counterpoint. While Nicaragua is attractive as a tropical beach option, BA is equally attractive for someone looking for a large livable city in a temperate climate zone.
A disclaimer: this submission is based on a short visit and the impression I gained during my time here. In addition, I did some basic research on the web, and as well gained some information from meeting a few locals, looking in the windows of realtor shops, and shopping in local stores. I spent all my time in Buenos Aires and in the central area for the most part. I have no information on smaller cities or the outlying areas.
Buenos Aires is a very large city, one of the worlds 20 largest in terms of population of the metropolitan area. With over 13 million people, it has about a third of the people in the country. That said, the area with which I became familiar seems much less crowded than almost any other large city I’ve visited. When I walked around my neighborhood at night, the streets are nearly deserted of traffic. However, it is a 24 hour city, and there are places to eat, party, and shop at all hours. Many restaurants open only at 8:00pm for dinner.
In the downtown area, the place has the feel of a European city. BA has been called the “Paris of South America,” and indeed there are many buildings and streets that remind one of Paris.
I had rented a studio apartment in an area (“barrio”) called Recoleta. I was four blocks away from the nearest subway stop and two blocks from a supermarket, where I shopped for breakfast needs. The area has many multi-story apartment buildings interspersed with small shops and restaurants.
The first thing a potential expat needs to know is the immigration situation. A tourist can get a visa on arrival good for three months. Obviously anyone interested in an in-depth investigation of the country should visit first and form his own opinions and do research on the living conditions, costs, etc. If you overstay the visa, there is a very small penalty (less than $20) charged when you leave, regardless of the length of the overstay. For a retiree, the simplest long-term visa is called a “rentista”, similar to a Thai retirement visa. This visa is good for a year and requires only that the holder demonstrate income of 2500 pesos/month for outside the country. The peso trades at 3 per $US or 4 per Euro, so you need $830/month of income to obtain the rentista. Since the average employed Argentine earns $400/month, it’s obvious possible to live on the minimum retirement. The rentista must be renewed yearly, but one expat website states that after three years you can get permanent resident status.
The rentista does not give the official ability to work. In fact, there is high unemployment in Argentina and the only reasonable source of extra income is to give English lessons. The pay is low, about $5/hour, but apparently there is a constant demand. So this is a valid way to earn a bit of extra cash. Many of the lessons are paid for by businesses and are given at company offices as opposed to in schoolrooms.
There is another type of visa for an “investor”, but requires an investment in an Argentine business of about $35,000. Most expat websites do not recommend applying for this visa as granting it seems to be rather arbitrary.
The spoken language is Spanish, and I did not find a huge degree of general fluency in English with people I came into contact with on a daily basis. I’m sure it would be possible to live here without learning Spanish, but to make things easy some degree of fluency in Spanish is probably mandatory. There are many language schools advertising in the local paper, and private lessons are easily obtainable. The good news is that Spanish is certainly easier to learn for an Anglophone than a tonal language like Thai or Mandarin.
There is one English language daily paper, the Buenos Aires Herald, and several major Spanish papers.
My apartment has cable TV with over 70 channels. Except for CNN, BBC, and several movie channels, all are in Spanish. The movie channels have the English movies with Spanish subtitles. There are many bookstores, but few English language books on sale.
Getting around is easy. BA has the oldest subway system in South America, built in 1913. There are 5 lines comprising 46km of tracks. There is a current project to double the total distance by 2011. The 5 lines radiate out from the center and interconnect only close in, so that if you are at the far end of one line and want to go to a station on another, you need to travel all the way to the other end to connect. The fare for one trip is .70 pesos, or less than $0.25 regardless of the length traveled, so quite cheap. The system shuts down at 10:30pm, so late at night reliance on buses and taxis, or walking is needed. Subway cars are crowded during rush hours, but service is frequent during the day.
Inside the Subte subway.
The bus system is widespread and cheap (.80 pesos/ride). To navigate the system you need a booklet with street maps and maps of the various routes. The only downside is that you need correct change. It appears that this causes a shortage of coinage, as there are signs in the subway asking people not to hoard coins.
Taxis are plentiful. They are more expensive than Bangkok taxis, but still cheap in terms of other major western cities. The initial fare on entry is a bit less than $1. A 10 mile trip I took late at night cost $5. Tipping is not needed. The taxis all run on CNG.
Street scene with bus and taxi.
Most of the cars on the street are European, with many VW, Renault, Peugeot, plus a few Fords. Driving is on the right. Fuel is cheaper currently than in the US or Europe. Diesel as of today is $2/gallon. I don’t know if the prices are subsidized by the government.
The international airport is about 20 miles from the center, accessed by a tollway. It is fairly small for a city this size. When I arrived both immigration and baggage claim were very fast. The currency booth at baggage claim gives very poor rates, so on arrival it’s wise to change only enough to get into town (i.e., $20 or so). The domestic airport is very close to downtown, located along the river. It’s a 13-hour flight to both Atlanta and Paris, and 11 hours to New Zealand. An advantage for Americans is that there’s no jetlag when arriving; the time zone is one hour earlier than on the East Coast of North America.
There is train service to both the suburbs and to other cities in Argentina, but I did not take any trains nor do any investigation.
Finally, BA is an excellent city for walking. It is dead flat, and all the streets in the central area have good sidewalks and are 1-way. The traffic lights work, and drivers are not berserk. I walked for many miles all over the city. One of the major
shopping streets, Florida, is pedestrian-only for close to a mile. Air quality is very good. A few years ago all private cars were forbidden to enter the central business district, but that decree was removed by a later government.
In the central area people live in apartments. Most of these are multistory buildings up to 15 stories high. Apartments facing the streets have balconies. Looking at classified ads or in realtor windows you find everything from small studios to 3-4 bedroom places. It seems that all sale/rental prices are quotes in $US rather than pesos. The apartments are all cooperative/condo arrangements, so owners pay a monthly fee for common facilities, water, garbage collection, and a concierge. The fee depends to a large extent on the facilities, so that if the building has a rooftop pool the costs will be higher. Some buildings have central heat, others not. The studio I rented provided an electric space heater. My kitchen had a small gas stove and a gas water heater.
In the area where I lived the prices were fairly high. I saw advertised one-bedroom apartments in the $80-100K range. In another barrio I saw apartments as low as $40K. Obviously location and quality have a big impact on costs, so obviously shopping is required to determine what to buy. There are also some very expensive, luxury places on offer if you’re in the upper income level.
Rents are in proportion to purchase price. One expat site states that buying rental apartments can be an excellent investment.
In the outer suburbs standalone houses are possible. I was informed that many well-off people buy weekend houses, but live in apartments during the workweek. Supposedly this causes massive traffic jams as these homeowners commute on Friday night and Monday mornings.
Buying an apartment requires using a reliable attorney to ensure a correct title. Mortgages can apparently be hard to come by.
Dog walkers at a park.
Argentina is a major beef producer, and local diets are heavy on meat. If you like steak this is the place for you. I did meet one guy who’s a vegetarian, so it’s possible to exist here without eating meat. Generally very few spices are used in anything, so if Thai-hot food is your thing be prepared to cook things yourself at home. I shopped at the local supermarket and found that food prices are lower than in the US or Europe. The Coto supermarket is a major chain. They offer home delivery for people who buy a large amount, and also take credit cards, US currency, and Euros.
One apparently important issue is the price of beer: it’s very cheap and good. Local beers are about $0.60 a 12-ounce bottle, and offer a good variety (lager, stout, bock). Imports are more expensive, but generally less than $1 for a bottle. There are also the larger 1-liter bottles available, as well as cans. There are a few English/Irish pubs; one that I sampled, Gibraltar in St. Telmo, had 2 for 1 specials on draft ales from 6 to 10 pm., 2 for 10 pesos. Argentina also has a significant wine industry, and local wines are cheap and offer a wide variety. One meal I had with a half bottle of a 2003 Malbec for 20 pesos. It was 13% alcohol, so I can attest you can get tipsy on it. It was reasonable both in quality and price (20 pesos in the restaurant.)
One oddity I found was that in shopping for ground filter coffee, almost every brand has sugar mixed in with the coffee. I found a single bag in the entire store that had no sugar mixed in.
In addition to the Coto supermarket, there are numerous mini-markets (similar to 7-11) that are open late. Numerous fruit/vegetable stands are located everywhere. And there are many pizza places that offer home delivery. While the majority of restaurants are traditional, you also find Chinese and Indian restaurants scattered about, and even the occasional Thai. The big shopping malls have food courts with options for Japanese, Arab, etc.
And then there are McDonalds and Burger King.
Street food in the Asian sense doesn’t exist in the central area. In general, the lunches I ate in restaurants cost somewhere around $7-10, generally for a steak with french fries, or pasta, and a beer.
There are numerous shops selling pastry/bread at good prices. As an example, I bought 2 small croissants (media luna) for today’s breakfast for 1 peso ($0.35).
There are lots of places to shop. In the trendiest areas you find all of the deluxe brands. There are many high-class indoor malls that rival the Bangkok malls, although most are somewhat smaller. Argentina is a great place to buy leather goods, as they have to do something with all the cowhide left over from producing the steaks. Leather coats, shoes, wallets, belts, briefcases, and luggage are all on sale everywhere.
I went to an antiques flea market on a Sunday at one of the parks in the St. Telmo area. Lots of junk, but interesting browsing. The area is also full of antique stores selling some interesting goods.
As stated earlier, the Florida pedestrian street is lined with hundreds of shops of all types, especially for clothes, jewelry, and of course leather.
BA is almost exactly at the same latitude (34 degrees South) as my home in Atlanta (34 North). Therefore I can expect the climates to be similar. During my visit just before the beginning of winter (middle of June), there was a “cold front” that caused daily temperatures to be in the 4-10C range. This was called unusual in the press, and in fact there was a shortage of natural gas supplies, apparently used to heat most homes. From this I gather that winter in BA is likely fairly mild, with snow being extremely rare. For me it didn’t seem very cold, but the natives all seemed to bundle up.
If you are a hot weather fanatic, BA is not for you. Look at Nicaragua or stay in SE Asia.
There is an old saying that portenos (BA natives) are “Italians who speak Spanish, think they’re French, and act like the English.” Whether that’s totally true I don’t know. However, BA had a huge immigration from Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, and the majority of the people on the street do look Mediterranean: black hair and olive complexions, with a few blondes mixed in. You see very few blacks or Asians on the street. Porteno women do seem to take a lot of care with their clothes and appearance. I visited in winter, so everyone is covered up with coats and sweaters. Many people were wearing furs, so the animal rights people haven’t made much progress here.
Almost 100% of the younger women wear their hair long and over their backs; the few women I saw with hair above the shoulders were older. I didn’t any women with tattoos (it’s winter so they’re covered up), but I did see quite a few with small nose studs and other small facial piercing. I also passed one tattoo shop during one of my walks.
Very few men have long hair. However, the scraggly beard/stubble look is seen fairly often.
I can’t comment on the naughty side of life, other than to say that there are plenty of ads for “escorts” and “massage” in the local classifieds. I saw no prostitutes on the street. Walking along Florida there are people
handing out cards with pictures of naked women, so obviously there is some “entertainment” available. You will need to do your own research.
Similar to Thailand, Argentina underwent a severe economic crisis in late 2001. Because of some dubious economic management by the government, the peso had been maintained at an artificially high level against the dollar, making BA one of the more expensive cities in which to live. When the crash came, the country defaulted on its bonds, and also confiscated its people’s dollar savings by forcing a conversion to pesos at a rate that caused them to lose more than ¾ of their value. Since 2004 things have stabilized, so that the 3-1 peso-dollar rate has scarcely budged. Nonetheless, the result has been a persistent high unemployment rate and a quarter of the population living in poverty. In the central area you see homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk or in parks, and some beggars on the streets, but there is very little aggressive solicitation of the kind you see in Asia.
People with dollar-based income are well placed, but it would be unwise to convert more dollars to pesos than necessary for current expenses. Employing a local for maid service, dog walking, or Spanish lessons appears to be quite easy because of the high local unemployment levels.
A recent study placed BA as fifth cheapest of all world capitol cities in terms of cost of living (Asuncion, Paraguay is on the bottom; Moscow, London, and Seoul are the most expensive).
In a week of walking about the city I never felt unsafe, and there are less reports of murders and other serious crimes in the local papers than in most US cities. That said, I did have my wallet pick-pocketed in a crowded subway on my last day in town. I didn’t have any cash, but I did have to cancel all of my credit cards immediately. A smarter option would have been to have only one card on me at a time.
There are scattered police about, especially on the pedestrian shopping streets (Florida and Lavalle).
And then there’s Uruguay
The Uruguayan city of Colonia is just across the mouth of the Plate river. It and the capitol city Montevideo are accessible by ferry service from the BA riverfront. I saw an ad for a day trip to Colonia for $25 round trip. The resort city of Punta del Este is near to Montevideo and located on the ocean. Anyone scouting BA for a retirement haven probably ought to check these places out as well.
A few web searches on Uruguay seem to indicate that Montevideo has an even lower cost of living than BA, and is much smaller. Citizens of western countries get visa on arrival for 90 days, and there seems to be a significant expat retirement community. Lifestyle/culture seems to be similar to Argentina’s.
A superb submission providing all the relevant information – and on a country that really does appeal to me personally. I would love to check it out and this submission just makes me want to visit all the more.