Thursday, 12 May 2016

Review - Tangueros' top ten travel necessities for Buenos Aire

In my last blog I listed items that will protect or enhance your trip to Argentina.

I should add that I have no connection with any manufacturer, and no financial interest in any of the products.  Clearly, I cannot guarantee any one of them. I review them simply because as a seasoned traveller they make sense to me.

Travelling anywhere in the world poses risks. The art of travel is to limit them in a proportionate way. Argentina poses no more unmanageable risk than parts of Europe - in Barcelona many travellers are victims of crime. When examining risk, we look at simple steps that will lower the chance of you being a target, and give added peace of mind.

1.  Travel Blue Sliding Wallet
For me, this travel wallet is a recent discovery. I am yet to use it in Argentina, but - having used many alternatives - consider this to be the best so far.

The travel wallet is not intended to double as a handbag. Its very design limits content, for example it will not house your passport. Yet it is just at the right side of economy when walking on the street, where my advice is to carry the bare minimum. Europeans are not as conspicuous as elsewhere in South America, but frankly we do tend to stand out as foreigners.

Street robbery is rare. More likely is simple, unnoticed theft. This may be accompanied by distraction (having your clothes sprayed with a grey-green substance, followed by offers to help clean it off), or opportunist theft (pick pocketing). Pick pockets habitually seek easy targets, and these are male tourists who carry their wallet in trouser jacket pocket; or female tourists carrying a handbag.

The Travel Blue sliding wallet is a perfect answer. Attached securely to your belt by a thick security strap, the travel wallet slips fairly easily below your clothing, either inside your trousers or up inside your shirt. 25 cms in length, it folds in half with a firm velcro fastening. Opened out, it is evidently very light, but tough and secure, coming with a two year guarantee. To the left are three vertical pockets for credit cards, held by internal velcro strap. This makes for easy removal by its owner when the wallet is open. For bank notes there is a lengthwise slide compartment, beneath which is a further zip compartment. Coins can be contained in a mesh section to the right, although I question why one would add the weight and bulk of coins to the wallet. Additionally, there are two small slide pockets -one for a photocopy of your passport.

I like this wallet because the fabric is robust, but soft and pliable when concealed under clothing. It is particularly comfortable against the skin, allowing you to place it under a shirt, or better, slip it below the belt inside trousers or a skirt.

I rate the travel wallet with 9* out of 10.

2.  Protector III Personal Alarm
Do you really need a personal alarm when travelling? No, perhaps you do not. But this particular personal alarm doubles as a property alarm, or to secure an hotel/hostel door, and this is why I always carry one.

The alarm with a back-clip, 8 x 5.5 cms, is light weight - you will scarcely notice it - and very robust. Mine is 10 years old and still going strong. Battery life (3 x AAA) is excellent, lasting well between annual trips.

The alarm is activated by the pulling of a pin attached to the strap. This means that you can secure the alarm inside luggage to any fixed item - such as a table leg, and know that if someone attempts to remove your bag, the pin will detach, alarm activate, and continue until the pin is relocated. The alarm is a high piercing note that nobody could fail to hear. The light also flashes on activation.

On the street, I use the alarm inside my shoulder bag, with the strap attached to my clothing. At open air milongas, the strap can be easily attached to a fixture leaving you safe in the knowledge that if someone takes your bag, they certainly will not hang onto it once the pin is pulled.

I rate the Protector Personal Alarm gets 10* out of 10.

3.  Super 48 Key-Bak
House and room security is taken seriously in Buenos Aires, and you will find that you pass through several locking doors before you gain access to your apartment or hotel/hostel room (unless digital or 24 hour attended). So keeping your keys safe and easily to hand is really important.

The Key-Bak system involves a 4 foot robust tensioned retractable cord which locks into a belt-mounted high density plastic case 5 x 7 cms. Yes, this is big, but fits surprisingly lightly (100g) and conveniently onto a man's belt with either thread-through or clip-over mechanism. Once attached, it will not be removed until you unclip your belt. The huge advantage of the Key-Bak is that with correct positioning, your keys will align with a trouser pocket for aesthetics and security, whilst the weight remains on your belt. Swivel the ring to unclip the cord, then the reel will free and extend all the way to the door lock.

I rate the Super 48 Key-Bak gets 9* out of 10

4.  Ledlenser K1 Key ring torch
There are times in Buenos Aires when you really need a light. Returning home from a milonga at 3 am and negotiating a dark passage - arriving at a venue and looking for the door bell - facing a power cut and searching for a candle - getting to your door and locating the key hole. Need I go on?

The advantage of the Ledlenser K1 is that it is utterly tiny and almost weightless. Just 4 x 1 cms (smaller than a little finger) powered by 4xAG3 micro batteries, it gives all the light you will need from a key ring torch, and saves pulling out your  smartphone in a darkend place.

The Ledlenser is however not sufficiently robust to be placed on your keyring where (like the one I bought) it will be damaged. But as a handbag accessory, it is ideal.

I rate the Ledlenser K1 gets 7* out of 10

5.  Transparent back pack
Men may take one look and reject this item - but most women immediately realise its worth.

Bag snatches are not uncommon. Thieves are looking for high value items, such as cameras, computers, tablets, iphones, wallets/purses and travel documents - and tourists often carry them in back packs. So, what better than to advertise the contents of your bag to the world? A pair of dance shoes, a pack of tissues and a lipstick are hardly worth stealing - and the mere fact that you carry a transparent bag signals that you have nothing to hide.

The bag has almost zero weight, and will pack flat in the bottom of your suitcase. Once in Buenos Aires, this can be your dance bag for milongas. The transparent vinyl  is surprisingly robust, it has a fabric base and strong adjustable straps, with additional carry handles and side pockets.

You may need to order this item via the USA, but in our view it is worth the wait and cost.

The transparent back pack gets 10* out of 10

6.  Casio Unisex Watch

The last thing you want on your travels in Argentina is your Rolex. When out and about you simply want  a water resistant watch to tell the time. This watch is almost ideal, and at a great throw-away price.

The Casio watch says 'I am not worth stealing' and sends a further security message about the wearer. With clear numbers and second hand, it fits lightly and snugly to the wrist. Battery life is good, although you may wish to change the plastic strap for a light leather one. It lacks an alarm, but compensates in neatness. And who expects to meet a deadline in Buenos Aires? This is truly a 'unisex' watch. At 6'2" I have two.

The Casio Unisex watch gets 8* out of 10


7.  Zendure A3 Portable charger
If you are the type of traveller that leaves technology behind, this is not for you. But most of us these days carry an array of electronic items, each requiring their own individual wall charger plug. And so we end up with a bag of plugs and wires, together with an array of adapters needed for charging in England before we leave, and in Argentina after we have arrived.

The Zendure portable charger eliminates this problem, allowing you to charge each of your electronic devices by USB from a 204g hand-held device either at your hotel/hostel/apartment - or on the move. This way, you need never have a flat phone or failed ipad.

The Zendure A3 portable charger gets 9* out of 10

8.  Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker II
Am I weighing you down with unnecessary electronics? In relation to the Bose SoundLink I sense not.

This blog is written principally for the travelling tanguero, for whom tango music is essential. It is not the same simply listening through a pair of headphones - there are times when you want quality sound through a speaker in your hotel/hostel room, a dance studio or in your apartment.

Most hired dance studios have an ipod/mp3 compatible connecting sound system, but unusually in your hotel or hostel - and in the apartment you will need cables to connect through the TV sound system.

Numerous trips to Buenos Aires have compelled me to take a portable sound system with me. This has been a pair of computer speakers, with the limitation that they cannot be used remotely and need to be powered. With the Bose SoundLink you say farewell to all of that. This device, which works independently of mains power, will connect by bluetooth or cable to your device, making it utterly convenient in every setting. Weighing in at 1.2kg - but with excellent sound quality, order this with the travel case, adding a further 159g.

The Bose SounLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker II gets 9* out of 10

9.  UK extension lead with USB
When travelling to Argentina, I always take an extension lead with me. It means that I can operate every electrical item from the mains with only one universal travel adapter, and charge up items immediately following a 14 hour flight.

The link above is for a combination lead giving two UK power points and two USB. Alternatively, consider a multi extension lead for Argentina.

A power lead gets 10* out of 10

10. Universal Basin plug
Neither hand basins nor kitchen sinks have plugs in Argentina - only the English seem to wash in standing water! Is this a luxury item, or a necessity? Either way, consider buying an inexpensive plug and pop it in your case.

A basin plug gets 7* out of 10

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Travellers Survival Guide to Buenos Aires 2016

I prepared this guide in 2007 following my 6 month stay in Buenos Aires; but readers request that I update and re-post. So, here is the 2016 edition - prepared specifically for tango dancers.

When to go and how long for?
Buenos Aires (BsAs) has an area of 80 square miles and a population of 3 million. Flights from London take approximately 14-17 hours, covering a distance of 7,000 miles. So this is definitely long haul to southern hemisphere. This is why we recommend at least 3 weeks in BsAs, and if you plan to travel further afield, take 4-6 weeks for your first trip.

As a southern hemisphere city, the best time to visit is either spring (late September to mid November), or autumn (mid February to late April). Spring in BsAs offers fresher weather with the Jacaranda in full bloom. Autumn is more mellow and relaxed.

Both seasons have their attractions. Bear in mind that June, July and August can be quite cold; and December and January quite hot, hence the better 'out of season' flight offers.

What flight and where to stay?
Only one rule in booking an airline - not via the USA unless you have an entry visa and propose to break your journey there. Even with close connecting flights you are required to exit flight-side in the States and return through intensive immigration control, including baggage/importation checks. Our experience of this is traumatic, especially if your connecting flight is within a 3 hour slot, which you probably won't make. So, whilst flights via USA may be competitive in price, they will be hard work, and substantially longer.

We suggest either direct flights from Heathrow to BsAs with British Airways (13.5 hrs), or regular connecting flights via Madrid/Paris if on a tighter budget.

Pre-booking accommodation in BsAs is not essential, but is advisable. Serious tango dancers tend to avoid regular hotels, taking tango hotels,  tango houses, or tango hostels. They have the added advantage of providing contact with other tangueros who can show you the ropes and introduce you to the milongas. Those wanting independence will find a wide selection of apartments for rent via Airbnb - follow this link if you are not currently signed up (we get a reward if you do!)

Popular places to stay are Recoleta (smart and central), Palermo (lively and leafy), Monserrat (central with traditional milongas), and San Telmo (Bohemian and artistic). My personal preference is San Telmo, hence my San Telmo Facebook group.

Currency in Argentina is the Peso (AR$). Notes come in 500/200/100/ 50/ 20/ 5/ 2 denominations and coins in 2, 1 peso. Be aware that some prices are shown in US$ so it is advisable to check currency conversion rates before you buy. Euros have some, and £sterling little value. We suggest that you pre-buy 5,000 pesos in the UK to cover your immediate expenditure on arrival. Whilst in BsAs you may use cash points (with premium charges) or Azimo money transfers - which is our choice.

For credit cards, we recommend Halifax Clarity - giving the best, charge free rates for travel outside Europe. Apply for the card at least 2 months before your travel date. Follow Martin's link above and scroll down to his 'Best Buys'.

Smart packing 
We often carry excessive luggage and pack too much. BsAs is a thriving, exciting, international city where you can buy almost anything you would ever want at competitive prices. The exceptions are - electronic items and English tea. So why take items you can buy there?

Lost or mislaid baggage on arrival is a habitual problem with South America flights, and there have been occasions when passengers and baggage are not reunited for several days. If you co-travel, split your packing between suitcases. If solo, ensure that you have the basics for two days in your hand baggage allowance.
Here are a few suggested items to add to your usual luggage:

Electric points in BsAs have unique two point diagonal connectors. With a UK power lead and a single adaptor (available throughout BsAs) you can connect your mobile phone, computer and other items for simultaneous charging, and add your UK hair dryer and other equipment. Consider too, a portable power charger for your phone, tablet and camera if you are out for a long day and evening milonga.

Stephanie and I recommend that you take your mp3 player and portable speaker system for any trip - useful in hostels, apartments and rented dance studios, giving you tango music when and where you need it. Keep them in your hand baggage during transit.

For security peace of mind, you may also wish to take a good quality travel wallet,  theft-deterrent light rucksack, property protection alarm, Keybak with belt clip, a cheap water resistant watch which need not be removed at customs, and a mini torch for the times you arrive late night back at your apartment.

We recommend that you take several photocopies of your passport - such are frequently needed for i/d - and store a digital copy securely on the cloud for easy access in the case of loss. I also photograph and store details of each credit/debit card, together with a record for cancellation phone numbers.

Before leaving Europe, ensure that your phone roaming is either covered by contract or switched off to avoid roaming charges on data.

With a long flight in mind we recommend that you consider an upgrade if affordable, or preferential seating if not. With a minimum of 14 hours flight time, some preparation is wise. Consider support socks, neck support, eyeshades, phone and ear phones (Bose noise cancellation if you can afford them). Keep your passport (or photocopy), a pen and details of your destination address to hand - you will need these to fill in the entry forms that are distributed in the lead up to landing. Exercise frequently and drink plenty of water during the flight, for dehydration is an issue. Take a pashmina for warmth on the plane, and later when returning from milongas - it will double as a sarong during your stay.

As you land at Ezeiza, don't be fazed. Take a few moments to savour arrival, rather than be intimidated by what lays ahead.

BsAs International Airport
EZEIZA (also occasionally called Ministro Pistirini) is 22 miles (35kms) from the city centre. There are two terminals A and B which are adjacent and connected by a 5 minute semi-covered walkway. Your flight will generally arrive at terminal A but may be diverted to terminal B, smaller and more intimate.
Immigration control
Take the non-resident queue and be prepared for a wait at busy times. Have your passport and completed immigration card (distributed before landing) ready. Keep details of your destination address and return flight to hand. If asked about the purpose of your visit, inform them that you are a tango dancer. You will be waved through with a smile.

Luggage reclaim
This is standard as at any international airport. Be prepared for missing luggage and do not panic.  Inform the airline (here again, written record of your destination is essential) and proceed to your hotel/apartment to shower, relax and have a drink. Your luggage should be delivered within 24 hours.

Exit hall
One you leave flight-side you will enter the exit hall (still a protected area to which the public are not readily admitted). See the kiosks on both sides for transfer tickets for taxi or bus, and buy your airport taxi or Tienda Leon coach ticket here using the record of your destination address. Before you leave get directions to the taxi or bus stand (located at terminal B). Otherwise, ignore the kiosks and proceed straight ahead into the arrival hall where throngs await arriving passengers.

Travel to the city takes 30-40 minutes by coach or taxi.

We have mentioned Tienda Leon which I habitually use on arrival, not least because it is safe, stress free and good value for up to two passengers. By coach, purchase a ticket that gives connection to your hotel or apartment. Hand your cases to the driver who will give you a ticket receipt. The coach will head for the city coach terminal, a safe area where you will transfer (in time) to a usually shared, included price taxi that will drop you outside your destination. Yes, this adds up to 20 minutes to your journey, but is part of the exciting arrival experience, and gives a good view of the city.

If you are to take a taxi from the airport pre-book a remise in the exit hall, or take a black and yellow cab from the airport concourse. Agree the taxi fare in advance for this journey as it falls outside the metered fare and will involve toll charges en route.

So you have arrived! What a relief.
As with any South American country, security is taken seriously, so familiarise yourself with the house rules and keep your keys securely. You are exhausted, but resist the temptation to collapse straight away. Have a brief stroll around your bario (neighbourhood). Take a bag, find a local supermarket and buy some water, bottle of wine, cheese, fruit, coffee (without added sugar - 'sin azĂșcar), tea and fruit for your room or apartment. Buy a cheap folding umbrella. Locate your nearest cash machine and friendly bar. Return to unpack and rest. Tomorrow, the city!

Our top ten hints - for simple safety whilst travelling
BsAs is essentially a safe city, although as with any South American city, poverty raises an incidence of crime. For this reason alone, we suggest:

1. Carry only what you need, and nothing more. Keep your house keys accessible on your key-back.

2. Avoid wearing watches, jewellery (including costume jewellery) or expensive cameras that will draw attention. Wear your cheap water resistant watch.

3. When drawing cash, ensure that it is safely placed before you leave the ATM; and secure your wallet or purse before leaving shops.

4. Never keep cash in a back pocket, and split larger amounts between bags or wallets. Consider carrying a 'false wallet' - with expired credit card and small notes.

5. Choose your handbag with care. A rucksack style bag is more difficult to dip or snatch, and the clear plastic variety has advantages. In busy areas, consider carrying a bag to your front rather than your back.

6. Take only radio taxis (black and yellow), write down your destination before you leave, and hand it to the driver. For your return journey, carry a piece of paper with your address. Keep smaller notes to one side for your taxi fare to avoid being short changed or given false notes.

7. Keep your sube pass handy before entering the subte (underground) or boarding the colectivo (bus). Take extra care on the subte, planning your journey in advance. 

8. In cafes or restaurants, avoid putting your bag or sack on the floor or pavement. Keep it secure on your lap, attach to your leg, or use the high shelves provided in some cafes.

9. When out and about, if stranger/s approach you do not engage - stranger contact is not part of the culture here. Move into the road/open space and draw attention. ’'Spray and help' - the old trick of spraying green or grey paste and then offering to help clean your clothes - this means danger. Disengage and move away immediately.

10. Walk with purpose and don't worry. Those who appear diffident are the visible targets for street crime.

Locate your local subte and check 'Getting Around'. 

Use Hoy Milonga to locate your choice of milongas.

Use Omnia Lineas to work out which colectivo (bus) is best for your journey.

Tipping: 10% in restaurants and cafes, small notes for theatre or cinema kiosks, a porter or ticket staff at the milonga, and if you have a favourite milonga, treat the waitress with a good tip to get a decent table! Not expected to tip taxi drivers.

Contact me if you would like further help on any topic, or would like to suggest changes to this posting. Don't forget to follow this blog.

And here, a glimpse into what awaits, courtesy of professional photographer, Miles Twist.