As many first-timers have learned on their own, it’s not hard to inadvertently step into a brothel in Buenos Aires. These shadowy spots are, at first, hard to discern from the dimly lit caverns of your friendly neighborhood drinking hole. But worry not! Sam Ginsburg is here to help you to clearly distinguish the brothel from the bar.
A long time ago, ten months to be exact, I was an excited traveler on my first night in Buenos Aires. Luckily enough, it was a Friday. I had just met my roommate for the next month, another American who had also arrived that day, and we were both eager to get out and experience this city’s legendary scene. Asking a few of the “veterans” that lived at the hostel (they had all been in BA for at least a few weeks), we were told that a good place to start out would be the area around the Recoleta Cemetery.
Hopping out of the cab, we stepped into the first bar we saw: an innocent-looking, blue-tinted pub right across the street from the cemetery. The bouncer tried to say something to us as we passed by, but neither of us understood Spanish, so we figured it must not be that important. After confusedly paying way too much for drinks and sitting down at an empty table in the middle of the room, I got a better chance to look around. There were very few people there, with way to many attractive girls sitting by themselves. Even stranger, all of these girls were staring and smiling at us. Something wasn’t right.
I was about to tell my friend that I thought we were in a brothel when a blonde woman in very, very tight pants walked over and started talking to us. She immediately took a liking to my friend, standing close to him and giggling at his accent. As excited as we were to be in Buenos Aires, even we weren’t naïve enough to think that picking up Argentine girls was that easy. I, having missed that Rosetta Stone unit where you learn how to talk to prostitutes, sat there quietly and sipped my beer. After my friend uncomfortably lied to the girl that he would come back tomorrow, we finished our drinks and got out of there as fast as we could.
We were relieved when we walked into our second bar a few streets down, one with drink specials, dim lighting and what seemed to be a healthy ratio of women to men. Finding two open seats at the bar, we sat down and tried to restart our evening. We ordered new beverages and began talking to the nice-looking girl sitting next to me. Things seemed to be going well, or at least I thought they were, until she suddenly leaned in towards me and said that if we would like to continue this conversation, or do anything else that night, we would have to pay her.
We paid our tab and hit the road, leaving the bar feeling hurt and confused. Both of us were asking the same question: are there any girls in Buenos Aires that aren’t on the clock?
Almost a year later, with much-improved Spanish and a Guia-T in hand, I know that that night was more bad luck than a reflection of the city. There are more than enough normal bars with normal girls. There are also a large number of brothels and strip clubs, or brothels that look like strip clubs, or brothels that look like bars, for those of you who are into that sort of thing. But for those of you who’d rather not pay for sex (or would rather do so the traditional way, with dinners and movie tickets), here are a few tips to separating the real bars from the other ones.
First, check out where you are. Look around. If you are in the middle of a very touristy area (e.g. across the street from the biggest landmark in the city), be on alert for shady pubs. The owners know quite well that tourists could be looking for that kind of place, or at least don’t speak Spanish and could be confused into buying one or two overpriced drinks. Also, look out in areas around Microcentro where there are many large, expensive hotels meant for people traveling for work, giving a whole new meaning to the term “Business Class.”
Another thing to watch for is the appearance of the bars. Some of them are obvious, with neon lights and pictures, but others not as much. There will usually be bouncer outside the door, trying to talk to people as they walk by. Tinted or covered windows are never a good sign if you are searching for a more wholesome night out. Signs with the phrases “Dance Club,” “Club Lounge” and “Hot Coffee” often confuse visitors into entering these establishments (though whoever was tricked by the third one was probably more surprised than most). Having nothing on the outside, no sign or anything, is sometimes a sign of extracurricular activity going on inside, though there are also many notable exceptions.
The interesting part of the Argentine sex industry is that even if you don’t go to it, it’ll come to you. Scattered throughout many of the “normal” bars of the city are working girls, popularly called Gatos , flirting with unassuming travelers and getting many, many free drinks. Some are up front about their intentions, while others hide the fact that they are working until after they have sufficiently engorged the egos of their lonely companions. Either way, unintentionally falling for this seductive trap could lead to costly consequences. And, once again, these Gatos tend to hang around popular tourist and businessman drinking spots.
On a more serious note, the world of prostitution is a very dangerous one, and it’s safe to say that most of these women do not have this job by choice. This is all the more reason to avoid these institutions. Also, there are more than enough beautiful, interesting women in this glorious city to make you not need them.
So, if you so choose, use these tips to avoid Buenos Aires’ darker places and enjoy all the consensual fun that it has to offer. At the very least, the drinks will be a lot cheaper.