Even if Buenos Aires seems to be a chaotic city at the first glance, you can get around in many different – more or less adventurous – ways.
Since the traffic here is worse than a mixture made from Mexico City and Napoli, I never used a car, so I can not recommend or advise anything (rental) car related.
To get around you have the following options: walking, bicycling, colectivo (bus), SUBTE (metro, subway), tren (train) and tren touristico, taxi, and remise (kind of taxi). Try to always add some buffer time to your plans, especially if you need to arrive at some place on time. Transportation in Buenos Aires tends to take longer than we would expect from an european perspective.
Walking: Walking is safe at daytime in most areas of the city. As a single traveling woman this may apply to fewer areas. Just follow your instinct. In case you get lost: grab the next possible taxi and get out of there – that is way better than standing somewhere staring on a map or, worse, on your google maps on a big, new iPhone (look here how to take care of your Apple products).
Be aware of tons of dog poo on the sidewalks.
Bicycling: In the last years some of the streets got bicycle lanes constructed at the side. Most car drivers hate them, because the government took the space from the cars to build the so-called “bicisendas”. Additionally they are constructed with massive yellow stone barriers, so illegal parking on them is not easy (although done a lot). Honestly you should ride a bike here only if you feel comfortable riding your bike in crowded cities. If you are a single speeder and feel home in the chaotic streets of Berlin, go and get yourself a bike. Otherwise it can be a bit dangerous.
Most streets in Buenos Aires are one way streets. The bike roads – in contrast – are mostly bidirectional. If you ride your bike in the contrary direction of the cars, nobody will expect you to come along. This leads to some really dangerous situations on crossings. Be very careful and ride defensively, because here the cars are supposed to be the only relevant participants in traffic …
You can rent a bike at various bike stores, or at the yellow rental stations from the government, called Ecobici. Ecobici bikes need to be returned the same day, and you need to register at one station with your passport. The technical conditions of these bikes seem to be not as appropriate as I would like them to be. If you rent in a bike store, you can negotiate the length and price of the rental. If you stay for a month or longer, buying a (used) bike can be an option. But be aware that bikes get stolen frequently, count this into your budget.
You can find an official map of the bike roads here. If you want to ride your bike on normal streets, take (on one way streets) the very left (!) lane. The right side is very bumpy because of colectivos and taxis stopping frequently and suddenly, without giving you any notice or chance to react on time.
Colectivo (bus): Beside the SUBE (metro) the wide network of colectivos connects all parts of the city. The colectivos run not only in Capital Federal (the city), but as well to and from the outer areas, called “Provincia de Buenos Aires”, look here for more information on this. They run day and night, but there are no timetables at all. So you go to the bus stop of the colectivo you want to go with, and wait. If you don’t know where exactly the stop is located, look for queueing people, ask around, and look for the sometimes very unremarkable signs with the colectivo numbers on it.
Due of heavy traffic sometimes you have to wait for ages for a bus of your line, and if it approaches, there are 3 of it at the same time.
Some colectivos have aircon, and you can feel like in a freezer when they cool it down to 16 degrees celsius, coming from outside 35. Bring always a sweater, just in case.
To find out which line you should take, you can use a small paper book (named Guia T, available at newspaper stands), or – works much more comfortable for me – the website and/or app service of “Como llego“. There you will get decent information about stops and route and time due.
Since streets are mostly one-way in Buenos Aires, be aware that the routes to a certain destination and the route back will most probably be on different streets. If you want to remember the stop where you got on the bus to find the point to get off on your way back home, keep this in mind.
It is common to queue on the bus stop, to enter the bus in order of the waiting time, and sometimes men let women get on board first. In the colectivo make sure to offer your seat to elderly or disabled persons, as well as to parents with children, like locals do.
Colectivo drivers are at least as crazy as taxi drivers, so hold on tight, or you might fall and hurt yourself.
The colectivo will halt at a bus stop only if there are passengers to get off it (to do so, press the sign inside of the bus) or when passengers at the bus stop give a clear sign that they want to take this bus. To do so, stand at the side of the street, and reach out with your stretched arm to the street, rise it around 45 degrees above horizontal. (With the same gesture, but a low outstretched arm, you will stop the next free taxi. Since taxis and colectivos come sometimes close in a row the gesture matters!).
When you enter the colectivo, you tell the driver your destination (usually a crossing of 2 streets) and he sets the price for the ticket (as of april, 8th, 2016: 6 to 7 arg. pesos). You can only (!) pay non-cash with your SUBE card. In case you don’t have one, ask a passenger next to you to help you with his card, and give him the money in cash.
SUBE Card: If you arrive in Buenos Aires it is useful to buy a SUBE card. You will find them in many kioskos, but not in all of them. The typical signs you can see in the pictures. The cost of the rechargeable card is 30 arg. pesos (as of april 2016). You can recharge the card as often as you want and with the amount you feel appropriate. But the card is usable like cash, in case you lose it. If the credit on the card is used, you can still charge it until -10 arg. pesos. This is quite comfortable!
You can buy as many rides for different persons with one card as you want. In case you have to change the colectivo line, you have to pay first until the stop where you get off the first line, and then pay in the second colectivo until your final destination.
You can use the SUBE card as well for the SUBTE (Metro), see below.
SUBTE (metro, subway): Any transportation based on streets in Buenos Aires is reliable on Sundays or good weekdays. But very often strikes, demonstrations, or constructions will cause traffic jam. Then walking or taking the SUBTE is the best option. The SUBTE consists of 6 lines and runs all days from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. to around midnight, depending the line, and in peak times every 3 minutes there is a train coming.
Prepare to be close to many people, especially in peak times it can be very packed. Pickpockets are underway meanwhile, so keep your belongings in front of you. Some SUBTE lines don’t have aircon, which can be quite uncomfortable in hot days, means: bad smell! But over all the SUBTE is the most efficient transportation in Capital Federal.
A map of the lines, and the current status of the lines you can find here. The SUBTE connections are as well part of the “Come llego” services. The price for one ride is 7 arg. Pesos (as of april 8th, 2016).
Taxi: At night, in more rough areas, or if you are simply too lazy to deal with the public transport, you can always take a taxi. The basic fare starts at 20 arg. pesos (as of april 2016), in between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. it’s 20% more. The taxis are all black and yellow.
You can stop one at the street by reaching out your stretched arm to the street, below horizontal.
A free taxi you can easily detect by the illuminated “libre” sign at the windshield of the car.
There are 2 sorts of taxis – radio taxis and non-radio taxis. The radio taxis have an additional taxi sign on the roof. The non-radio taxis are just black and yellow. The difference between the two: radio taxis are controlled by the government, they have calibrated meters and must show the client a standard paper with the driver’s name, licence plate of the car, etc.
The non-radio taxis are less safe since they don’t have all this. The price anyway should be the same in both cars, but we might never really find out. To avoid typical touristic fraudulance make sure to halt your taxi in the right street / right direction (going in the direction your destination is located, not against), and if the taxi driver tries to tell you that you have paid with false money, just get off the taxi, it is a clear trial to fiddle you.
Remise: If you go to the outer areas (“Provincia de Buenos Aires”), you can not stop a taxi on the street. The black-yellow ones don’t operate there, neither others. The only way is to call a remise service, or book it online in advance. There are several remise services in all areas, ask a neighbour, staff in restaurants or beach clubs to help you. If you choose to make your way from Ezeiza airport into the city with “Taxi Ezeiza”, you already know the principle. You agree on a price before hand, because remise cars don’t have a meter. Sometimes you are asked to pay before the ride, but this varies.
Tren (train): I actually have been traveling only twice by train, and it is very comparable to european train rides. Find out which train and when you want to go with, get yourself a ticket at the train station, go. Main train stations are Once and Retiro, these places are more risky to move around, so keep an eye on your belongings. Be aware that the train system in Buenos Aires is imported from England, so the train rides usually from the other side of the platform, than you might have expected it. Check carefully!
Something special is the “Tren Turistico” or “Tren de la Costa“, which goes from station Maipu to the Delta (Tigre). So if you plan to spend a day in the delta, or a weekend, this is a very nice way to get there. This train stops at many small train stations, where small cafes and shops are built in the old station buildings. The fare is 10 arg. pesos, as of april 2016, –> choose “boleto residente”, and buy it at a ticket machine, using your SUBE card (else, at the booth, you will have probably to pay a non-resident ticket of 20 arg. Pesos). You can hop on and off the train under way, enjoy the small villages along the coast, have a coffee and a rest. Highly recommendable for a sunday. For more info about what to do in Tigre, read here.