How old were you when you got your first car? Rare is the day when a fellow American makes it to adulthood (21) without owning an automotive vehicle of his/her own. Think back to high school and how many of your peers were bestowed their very own SUV or something of the like upon reaching that coveted sixteenth birthday.
The reality is that the US is an automotive play land where highways and suburbs reign supreme and the only bus you ever ride is the bland yellow public school wagon in middle school. Believe it or not, the rest of the world relies heavily on public transportation, particularly in areas where urban sprawl is rampant, as in Buenos Aires.
So you just hopped in a taxi from Ezeiza airport, you’ve got your Buenos Aires guide in hand, and you notice that El Caminito in Boca is on the other side of town from your hotel in Palermo. That comforting peso/dollar ratio could easily justify a taxi; and there’s nothing wrong with an initial splurge since you’re fresh off the plane. But what if I were to tell you that it’s literally 25 times cheaper, much more entertaining, and extremely self-fulfilling just to hop on a bus?
But what if I don’t speak Spanish well?
Where do I get on?
How do I pay?
How do I know when to get off?
As long as you can say ”hasta wherever you are going” in Spanish and possess basic map-reading skills, you’ll be absolutely fine.
You have a choice to pay either in coins or to use the local public transportation cards “SUBE”. It is cheaper to use the SUBE in the long run, but if you are here for the short term it may not be worth the hassle signing up for one (they also cost $15 pesos).
To get a SUBE card all you have to do is bring along your passport number and $15 pesos to any stand that issues cards. You’ll see them in the larger subway stations, some of the big intersections and around the city. Careful to not confuse them with a simple kiosk that recharges the cards. Those are very numerous.
Paying in coins
All bus trips in the city will cost either $3.00 pesos, $3.25 pesos or $3.50 pesos. The general rule of thumb is that if you plan on going less than 15 blocks, it’s $3.00. If not, you’re at the mercy of the bus driver as to whether you’re paying $3.25 or $3.50. 15-35 blocks is supposed to be $3.25 pesos and anything more within Capital city limits is $3.50. When boarding you tell the driver the cost of your trip or the destination you are going. At times they will question where you are going if you decide to suggest a price so be prepared to answer if you take that route.
$1.50 pesos, $1.60 pesos or $1.70 pesos
Like many metropolitan areas, Buenos Aires is a grid city. There’s a logical pattern to the streets and their corresponding addresses. And there is a brilliantly-composed city map that comes in the form of a novella about the size of a pocket bible. It might as well be your pocket bible for the amount of times you will consult it. It’s called the Guia ‘T’ and can be purchased on any subway, most kiosks and many street corner new stands.
I cannot stress this further: you will be lost in this city without a Guia ‘T’ . It’s your hatchet in the wilderness. It has a detailed map of every street in this city plus a very clear indication of which bus takes you to your final destination. And anyone from a 3rd grader to my 87 year old grandma can decipher it in a matter of seconds.
Literally almost every street corner that’s decently transited has bus stops. Each bus line (they’re called colectivos ) is marked by a number. Each bus stop is essentially a pole with a blue and white sign up top that indicates which bus lines will stop there. [see pictures].
So here’s what you do. First, locate your current address in the Guia ‘T’ . On the same page there will be a corresponding square that tells you exactly which buses pass by that address. Then locate your final destination and look for a bus that matches your current address with where you want to go. Example: If you find that the 64 bus goes to your current location in B-4 on the map and your destination also lists the 64 bus as a potential bus then that’s your bus!
Second, walk outside and find the bus stop, which will be marked by a small sign on a pole with numbers ranging between 1 and 200. Wait for the bus and signal it like you would a taxi when it comes by. Get on as quick as you can (busy cities have no patience for hesitation) and then tell the driver your destination or how much. Telling the driver your destination can be a time saver if you have boarded the bus route travelling in the wrong direction.
If you do not get a SUBE card then you can only pay with coins (monedas ) and there’s a whole scandal behind their scarcity, so make sure you stock up when possible. For all of you who frequented the arcade halls in 5th grade, this should be a breeze. There is a slot machine in which you insert your coins in one of two ways: through a little cup that protrudes from the top (just toss it in) or a slot positioned right next to the cup.
With the SUBE card just find the rectangular shaped scanner and press your card against it until it beeps.
Insert coins and wait for your receipt and potential change. Remove them and look for a seat. Simple.
Assuming you have your Guia ‘T’ on hand, getting off should be a piece of cake. Just follow along your trusty guide as the colectivo charges through the city. You’ll probably almost get into an accident several times along the way, but that’s standard around here and it helps you appreciate the fragility of human life.
Most colectivos have three different entry/exit doors. There are carefully placed door-bell looking buzzers near each exit. Because most bus stops are about 4 blocks between each other, I suggest getting up one stop before your desired exit. Give a short premature buzz a block or two before your stop so the driver has time to pull over, and badda-bing-badda-boom, you’re there. Just be sure not to exit the front doors considering others will most likely be getting on as well.
Now look at yourself. Probably the only English speaker on the bus, you were able to overhear the two Peruvian spice sellers behind you grieve about the weather. The slim buxom blonde sitting adjacent gave you some extended eye contact. Of if you are the buxom blonde, that raucous Argentine trio is giving you the eye (although sometimes difficult to tell through the ever so popular aviators).
And consider the cash you just saved. That’s the equivalent of five 1-liter bottles of Quilmes (the Budweiser of Argentina) at your local mini-mart. Or maybe you prefer to spend that on a nice bife de lomo (filet mignon) at the parrilla down the street.
There’s no denying the effectiveness and efficiency of the colectivos . Assimilate and live like a local. It’s so much more rewarding. And who knows? Maybe a little eye contact will go a long way. I’ve seen it first hand.