Lost in Buenos Aires

Busy street in Buenos Aires

… or how complicated it can be to take the bus in Buenos Aires – and what you can do to avoid getting as lost as I did. I can’t recall the last time I felt so disoriented and lost, but I was certain I would laugh about this story later on.

Cars driving on a street in Buenos Aires
First time in South America

In September 2015, I left Europe for the first time. A friend from Buenos Aires had invited me to visit him in his home country. We met about a year and a half earlier in Madrid, where we both happened to be on vacation. During our stay, we  shared a dorm room in a hostel with six other strangers. Okay, for me, there were only five strangers because I was travelling with one of my oldest friends, exploring various places in Spain.

My Argentinian friend Fabian lived in Banfield at that time, a town in the province of Buenos Aires located around 14 km (8.7 miles) from the capital itself. Of course, Fabi picked me up from the airport and took me to his appartment. Unfortunately, he had to leave shortly afterward because he had to go back to work. So I was on my own. After freshening up, I planned to venture into the city centre of Buenos Aires. I thought it would be a straightforward task … but I soon discovered that navigating the bus system was quite challenging for Europeans (Or perhaps it was just me?).

By the way, Argentinians have a special word for buses, they call them Bondi.

No timetables and hidden bus stops

Streets in Buenos AiresMaybe it’s because I’m German. You probably know the stereotypes about us Germans; we’re (always) very punctual. I wouldn’t necessairly claim that for everyone, but yes, our buses typically adhere to fixed timetables and routes (although not all of them are consistently on time). Before coming to South America, I couldn’t really imagine that some countries simply don’t have this. Buenos Aires, for instance, there are no timetables which was a bit of a culture shock for me.

In Buenos Aires, sometimes the same bus line comes twice in a row, while other times you might wait for a really long time, like when I waited two hours for the bus to the airport. The routes and bus stops were absolutely confusing for me. Most buses stop after every second block. – Argentinians measure everything in blocks. However, these stops aren’t always easy to spot because most of them don’t look like typically bus stops and often lack names. I believe they have a sign, but it is not always easy to find. 

But those are not the only challenges you will face as a tourist – like me. When you withdraw money from an ATM for the first time, you will only receive bills. However, you can only pay with coins on the bus or with a bus card. I had this problem as well. At least, public transport is quite affordable in Buenos Aires.  Still, I had to figure out how to pay for the bus ticket. Therefore, I asked some people for change, but in the end, they just paid for my ride and refused to accept any money in return. All the Argentinians I met were incredibly friendly and genuinely helpful. The bigger challenge was finding someone who understood English.

Bumpy bus rides and no 'inglés'

Obelisco in Buenos AiresIn Buenos Aires, you have to stop the buses by showing them the palm of your hand. They won’t stop automatically when they see passengers waiting and when the buses are too full, the driver won’t stop eighter.

Finally, I found a girl my age taking me with her – at least for the first few minutes. Because then a pure odyssey began. The girl only spoke Spanish and explained to me with the help of gestures that she would need to leave the bus before me. She then introduced me to the bus driver and asked him to tell me when to get off. But of course, the driver also only spoke Spanish. I was sitting in the first row, next to the bus driver and had fun observing all the people who entered and the places we passed. The bus was so fast, it gave me a really good shake. The bus driver already opened the doors before he stopped and was back on the road after the last passenger entered regardless of whether he had already paid.

I was sitting on that bus for more than one hour. I felt so lost because I really had no idea, where I was and also not sure how to get to the place, I wanted to meet with my friend Fabian. I just hoped the bus driver would drop me off the bus at a busy place. I saw everything, from really bad streets with deep potholes to narrow alleys and multi-lane roads with pompous buildings. Nonetheless, for one second I forgot all of my problems because for sure I saw one of the prettiest sundowns on the highway.



The dangerous city

After thousands of stops, the bus driver found a woman who spoke a little bit of English. She explained to me, that I had to change the bus two times. When I showed her my map of Buenos Aires and asked her, where I was, she said it wasn’t on the map. This is the moment when you believe you will never find the right way. The woman helped me to find the next bus, I had to catch. She called her mother to explain to me everything in English because she had some problems with the language. I was so thankful. After a few stops, we went to the next bus, and after a long time, we changed again. She paid for the bus for me and went out. So I was alone again and had no idea at which bus stop I had to leave the bus. Another woman appealed to me. She asked me in English if I were a tourist and where I’m from. I explained everything to her and asked her if she could tell me, where I have to leave. She said I should leave the bus at the last bus stop, but it won’t be so safe there. She said if I wouldn’t find my friend, I should take a taxi, it would be too dangerous for me to walk. That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. It reminded me of my sister who told me I should send her a message every second day so she will know I’m okay (later she said every fourth day would be also enough). The woman left the bus a few stops before me. Actually, the bus driver told me when I had to leave the bus.

Happy End and my résumé
Torre Monumental, Retiro in Buenos Aires

The main streets of Buenos Aires are really big with many traffic and thousands of people (it was a Friday evening). I was so confused with the thousands of streets, that I had no idea in which direction I should go. I was at Retiro station. There are many different stops and stations for buses and trains. I was looking for some trains if probably one would bring me back to Banfield. But in the end, I was lucky. I finally caught Fabi on his cell phone and we met at the big clock near Retiro. I was so happy to find him. 

So my résumé: If you are for the first time in Buenos Aires it’s really difficult to find the right buses and to know where to get out. Friends of mine were also in Buenos Aires and told me, they tried to take the bus, but the left at the wrong stop, because they couldn’t count the stops so easily. I think I took only two bus lines until the end of my vacation because these lines were the only ones I knew where to get off. It’s so much easier to use trains and metros because they have names for every station and will stop at every station, so, it’s kind of the same as in every other big city. So my advice would be to take trains and metros. To take public transport you need a Sube-card. You can buy a card in most of the drugstores (kioskos) and load money on that card to pay.