It’s now been three months since we arrived here in Salta. So far, overall, it’s been a positive experience, but it’s perhaps only until very recently that I felt truly convinced that we made the right decision to move here. Now, I might be falling in love with the place.
Finding somewhere to live in Salta
For the first week, we stayed in a couple of hostels, whilst we looked for somewhere to live. It is not easy finding a decent flat in Salta to rent for just a year, particularly one that is furnished. We spent many days walking all over the city trying to find estate agents and flats available. At least, it gave us a chance to get to know the city and find our bearings!
Before arriving in Salta, we had been searching on the internet and emailing various people advertising flats to rent in the city. Our best response was from Air BnB, however as with many of the places advertised on the Internet, the rent was extremely high. Most places were for short term lets, renting per day or week. They were also aimed at tourists and foreigners, so were asking for exaggerated ‘gringo’ prices.
Once we were in Salta, we bought the local paper and contacted a few people advertising places. We were really after furnished accommodation, which, as we had found on the internet, was difficult to find and extremely expensive. We noted down the addresses of many estate agents, but often had difficultly even finding their offices. In some cases, the ‘office’ was just the front room of someone’s house. We did manage to visit some estate agents though. They appeared very helpful, took our contact details and said they would contact us the next day, once they had ‘made some calls’. Not one of them got back to us. And anyway, by going down the official route of renting a flat through an agent, we would have to adhere to the two year minimum contract, provide all the paperwork and references and put down a huge deposit.
In the end, we moved into a flat that belonged to the sister-in-law of the Director of the English institute. As with many administrative tasks here in South America, it’s best to go through a friend, or a friend of a friend of a friend…of a friend, to get things done quickly and with less hassle. The flat was a little more expensive than we had hoped, but it was convenient, we hadn’t found anything else and the hostel bill was mounting up.
So, we are now living in a small, but very nice fully-equipped flat. It’s the perfect size for us and our two backpacks’ worth of belongings. It has a fully equipped kitchen, and an oven, which is something we missed in Ecuador. And there are no cockroaches. So, perhaps, it’s not as interesting and fun as cooking outdoors in our zoo in Zamora, but we now have the opportunity to cook more varied things and have a go at some of the local dishes.
It’s quite a fancy place in that it has a Jacuzzi on the rooftop. Just a shame it never gets used. But, we do go up on the roof with a drink every now and again to enjoy the view of the city and the mountains around us. The sunsets are lovely and the lightning storms are spectacular!
Our flat is in a good location too. It’s about 4 blocks from the main plaza, near to the shops, bars and restaurants, and the park. We’re about 10 minutes from the coach station and all the local inner-city bus stops. It takes us about 15 minutes to walk to work. So, all in all, it’s pretty convenient and suits us well.
Living in Salta, Argentina
Salta is not a big city at all. The centre is small enough that you can walk everywhere and bump into people you know, which gives it a small town friendly feeling. On the other hand, it’s big enough that there is always something going on.
We love that there is plenty here to keep us entertained. At the weekends, we can go to see one of the free concerts at the Teatro Provincial or we could easily stumble across one of the many peñas (performance of traditional folkloric music and dance) offered in Balcarce street. Even in the main square, on most weekend evenings, there is something happening. It’s always full of people, often groups playing music. Something really special is watching couples dancing tango on the bandstand.
There is a great selection of restaurants and bars in Salta, and the food is great. And even if you don’t want to eat out, there are so many places to takeaway and it seems it’s quite common to have dishes of sandwiches, empanadas or milanesa delivered. We were happily surprised when our friends ordered a tub of ice cream to be delivered to our door after dinner one evening!
Of course, we are living here and so have to deal with the day to day experiences and humdrum life tasks. By this, I mean, paying bills, waiting in multiple long queues, buying our groceries etc. Although Salta may seem like a wealthy, developed, well-organised city, it still has many of the same complicated and frustrating aspects that we have come to expect from every South American country we have visited. Or at least, things aren’t as we are used to back at home.
Getting things done takes time, patience and perseverance. There are often protests or political campaigns happening on the main square, which slows things down. There is at least one bank holiday a month, which is great to have a day off, but it also means not getting paid and everything being closed. Strikes are also quite a common occurrence, meaning the buses stop running or the bank decides to close one day. Making a visit to the bank or any public service office can take up half your day, often having to wait in multiple queues, and then being told you have to return the following day.
Traffic is awful in the city. Cars drive fast and aggressively, and do not stop. They will not slow down for a zebra crossing or a crossroads, even if there are cars coming across from the other direction. Thankfully, there are a few traffic lights, so pedestrians have some chance at crossing safely. This is the only time that a car will let you walk across the road, so make the most of it. There are lots of motorcyclists too, who zoom around holding their helmets in their hand, rather than wearing them securely on their head. I am amazed, *touch wood*, that we have not seen any road traffic accidents yet here in Salta. One thing we have seen though is dogs being run over. There are lots of stray dogs here in Salta who mainly live around the main plaza. Often, they run after the cars and so it is no wonder that the poor things get run over.
Rubbish is another problem. The city employs a lot of cleaners, so the centre is kept reasonably clean. Without them, there is no doubt of the piles of litter that would mount up. Every day, we see people, of all ages of all social classes, dropping their rubbish on the ground. It makes me weep inside to see a respectable well-off middle-aged woman drop her ball of paper about 2 metres away from a bin in the middle of the gorgeous green plaza. There are areas where the cleaners don’t work and it just looks a mess. This region is beautiful and it saddens me to see how little respect some people have for their own home.
Getting involved in the vida salteña
As I mentioned previously, it’s only been recently that we have felt we made the right decision to move here. It’s not been an easy transition, especially since we were leaving behind such a beautiful home in Ecuador. After about two months of living here, we were settled into a routine, working a lot and feeling like we were limited as to what we could do at the weekends because we wanted to save our money. We were simply going to work, coming home and continuing to work and plan our lessons, and popping out to the supermarket to get food. We had got into a rut and a boring routine, which made us wonder what was the point of us being here. It was almost as if we were simply sticking it out just so we could say that ‘yes, we’ve lived abroad’, whilst counting down the days before we would be home and be able to get on with our lives. We knew we had to change something.
Firstly, we decided to sign up for Spanish lessons. Both of us spoke a decent level of Spanish but needed the opportunity to practise and improve. Being an English teacher and living two English people together means we could easily spend our whole time here speaking English. Now, we have three hours of private Spanish lessons a week. We try to speak Spanish as much as possible at home, often having whole Spanish days where English is not allowed.
Secondly, and most importantly, we have made Argentinian friends! This has been the best thing we could ever have done and makes the whole reason for being here worthwhile. As with everywhere we go in South America, we meet fantastic, warm and friendly people. The Argentinians are no different. And yet, we are still surprised and often overwhelmed by the generosity and pure loveliness of the people here. On meeting people for the first time, we are so often offered their help or assistance ‘por cualquier cosa’ if we should need anything and then they hand us their phone number. It really means a lot to us and makes us feel a little less alone. I ask myself how often, if at all, this would happen in England?
Another way that we have met new people is by getting involved in a charity project. We contacted Fundación Puentes de América, an NGO based here in Salta, who works to help the local community. We are now working on a project, ‘Use and Reuse’, with a group of students to open a charity shop in the city. We will be helping to support the students to promote the second-hand shop and the importance of recycling. Taking part in this project has so far been a lot of fun and it gives us the opportunity to meet locals and to learn more about the local community in which we are living.
To find out more about the ‘Use and Reuse’ second-hand shop, please have a look at the website here.
Paying rent and bills
The only straightforward aspect of paying our expenses is when we pay our rent. Our landlady calls us and tells us when she will be coming round to collect the rent. She arrives about an hour later than agreed and we pay her directly in cash. We pay AR$2800 a month in rent. This is for a small fully-furnished flat.
We also have to pay the expenses for the actual flat building, which has not been so straightforward. The expenses cover our Wi-Fi and cable TV, which is very convenient having that all set up for us. Also included in the cost is the doorman’s wages, cleaning, upkeep of the ‘gym’ (an exercise bike and a couple of weights in a room), the sauna and Jacuzzi (which no one uses) and the laundry room with 4 washing machines (which stays locked because they are all broken). The cost of these expenses is very high, and will have increased about 4 times in the 9 months we will have been living here. We were originally told we would be paying AR$1000, but it turned out it was in fact AR$1450, and this has now risen to AR$1650 (as of June 2015). When making a complaint, we are often fed the same response. Most problems, particularly the economy and rising prices are blamed on the Presidenta and her government.
There are also the electricity and telephone bills to pay. Electricity costs work out at about AR$130 a month, but this is likely to rise to about AR200 a month once we start using the heating. We don’t use gas, so the cooking and heating is all electric. The telephone, we rarely use and so works out at about AR$17 a month. We receive the bills either in the post or emailed from the landlady’s son, when he remembers. When we do receive something, it is often very close to or past the expiration date, so we have to pay a few cents more. It’s not a lot of money, but for someone like me who is organised and always pays bills on time, this is extremely frustrating and stressful. What is more, sometimes, we don’t receive anything at all and we have to hunt around trying to find out who has the bill – is it the landlady, her son, the doorman or the man who owns the flat building? Or, do we go directly to the utilities company, which inevitably involves a lot of queuing. Needless to say, I dread the beginning of each month.
So, once we receive our bills, we go to Rapipago, a bill-paying service that has stores all over the place. We’ve never used this kind of service before and so were unfamiliar with how they worked. It’s really very simple though. Once you get to the Rapipago counter, you hand over the bill and the cash and then collect your receipt. Make sure you go at the right time though. In the mornings, the queues are huge and spill out into the street. At a ‘quiet’ time, expect to wait for at least 20 minutes.
Cost of Living
When deciding on coming to Salta, we tried to work out the cost of living and how well we could get by on our teachers’ salary. It is no secret that Argentina is going through an economic crisis and inflation is high. We had read of many teachers who were in Buenos Aires and struggling to find enough hours of work to cover their living expenses. Many were trying to move and find work in other countries. A lot of people advised against going to Argentina, or at least to Buenos Aires. As such, we tried to make sure we knew what to expect. After having it easy in Ecuador and being able to live off a very low wage, we knew we’d have to adjust to life in Argentina.
Despite our planning, we had still underestimated the cost of living here. In our first month, we earned about AR$10000. This has gradually risen every month as we have taken on more hours of work, so that we are now earning about AR$15000 (about AR$7500 each) a month. That is based on us each working a 20 hour week.
We spent a lot in our first month and had to dig into our savings to cover some costs. We had to pay a deposit of two months’ rent in advance, as well as buy bed sheets, a small table (the cheapest we could find was a plastic 50cmx50cm table), a table cloth and towels. Then there was stocking the house with cooking essentials, cleaning products and toiletries. It all adds up and we ended up spending about £250 extra of our own money.
Since then, we have been keeping a more careful watch on our spending. We record our incoming and outgoing money and try to predict any extra costs we might incur in the month ahead. We plan our meals for the week to avoid making lots of little trips to the supermarket when we inevitably buy an extra packet of biscuits or crisps. On one trip to the market, I decided to write down all the individual prices of the fruit and veg we were buying, so now we have more of an idea of how much things are, and which expensive goods to avoid.
We can happily live off our salary as long as we manage our spending. We can afford to pay rent and bills, buy food and have money leftover for one or two ‘luxuries’ a month. This luxury could include some new clothes or a pair of shoes or a meal out or a weekend trip somewhere. Some months, however, the money may have to be used for not such exciting things, such as having to pay to extend our visas.
We have been surprised by the cost of some things here. In general, food prices are not far off what we pay in England. However, you must consider that wages are much lower, which makes things quite expensive here. A litre of milk costs AR$10, a dozen eggs cost AR$20, a loaf of bread is AR$28 and apples are AR$20 a kilo. The one cost we are happy about is the wine. You can a decent bottle for AR$28. This is because most of the wine sold is produced within Argentina, if not within the local region. Overall, we spend about AR$5000 a month on food and drink, which works out as about a third of our income.
The prices quoted here are up to date at the time of writing (June 2015). Prices are rising. Every month, we notice the increase in price of certain products in the supermarket. Prices are rising, but wages remain the same, which means the average family here is struggling. One of the reasons we underestimated the cost of living here is simply because prices are constantly rising. If you look around the Internet at the prices travellers have quoted, they are now out of date. We have even found prices quoted for tourist trips that are not relevant now.
Anything imported is super expensive. Under the current government, Argentina places huge import taxes on foreign products. Despite all the advantages of supporting national business, it makes certain products unaffordable for the average Argentinian and the range of choice available to the consumer is limited. Electricals are incredibly expensive. When you talk to the people here, the Argentinian electrical brands are just not the same quality and so are not worth buying, even with cheaper price tag. As a consequence, people are forced to pay extortionate prices. Or, if they can afford it, they many hop over to Chile to buy their electronic devices.
Clothes are another example of expensive goods. If you want quality, or even 100% cotton clothing, you must pay for it. There is no equivalent Primark shop where you can buy your basics at reasonable prices. Here, in general, cheap clothes are poor quality and synthetic. Fortunately, I was able to find the ‘fería americana’ the other day, which is a huge market of clothes, which have been donated from the U.S. It’s the equivalent of our British charity shops, but bigger and not so neatly arranged. However, you can find some fantastic clothes, even expensive designer labels, for a great price. The fería americana is definitely where I’ll be doing my clothes shopping from now on.
So, we’re feeling quite settled here now. We’ve got a lovely place to live, we know our way around the city, we have a routine and are working a full-time job, we have hobbies, and most importantly, we have great friends. We’re doing what we set out to do in the first place. We are no longer tourists just stopping by. We feel like we’re more a part of everything going on here.
As much as I hate paying bills, it does mean that I have to get in the queue like everyone else who lives here. And as much as I dread having to answer the phone, it does mean that I have to use my Spanish to communicate and get things done. All these little ‘challenges’ are, in fact, massive achievements for me. I can’t help but smile and feel super lucky to be out here. It’s just all so exciting.