Over the last decade Argentina has gone from quiet tourist destination to one of the world’s most sought after. With world famous steaks, an absolutely delightful wine industry, and incredibly captivating Argentine Tango the country has stolen the hearts and minds of 20-40 something adventurers throughout the world. I have to admit, I wasn’t any different. Hailed as the Paris of South America Buenos Aires offers a rich cultural experience and serves as the main draw for aspiring visitors. In reality, most of the visitors I met in Buenos Aires intended to spend almost all of their time in the city chasing great dances, food, and drink. I was initially drawn to Argentina by those three factors and in the early stages of my trip planning, envisioned myself spending nearly all of my 21 days in Buenos Aires learning Argentina tango, feasting on cheap meals, and finding grand adventures late into the morning. If I had I would have never truly experienced Argentina and would have made an egregious mistake.
Luckily, as I researched the country in greater depth I had several close friends suggest that I leave the city to explore some of Argentina’s natural beauty. Driven in no small part by the simple desire to get as far south as possible, I researched the southern Andes and was captivated by Tierra del Fuego, and the world’s southernmost city – Ushuaia. As my research unfolded I quickly realized that Argentina is home to some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders and offers natural landscapes and terrain that can easily give New Zealand a run for its money.
The incredible thing about Argentina is that it allowed me to go from hiking out to the middle of a glacier and sitting with thousands of penguins on a pebble beach to lazily swimming at the base of one of the world’s most incredible waterfalls situated in the midst of a massive, sprawling jungle filled with vibrantly colored toucans and other exotic wildlife. I feasted on delicious gas fed steak, mouth watering seafood, and split lamb cooked over an open fire, all washed down with fantastic wines while relaxing after watching a heart stirring Tango. In short. I fell in love with a country I merely expected to enjoy. Sounds good right? Ready to go? Before you do here are a few of the surprises I ran into.
The Cost – One of the first things you hear when listening to people talk about Argentina is how cheap it is. I say bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that its an incredibly expensive country, but its also not an incredibly cheap one. With massive inflation over the last decade and an incredible surge in the tourism industry prices in all of the places you’ll probably be visiting as a tourist, even an off-the-beaten-path backpacker will still be fairly expensive. Believe it or not Argentina was my most expensive trip to date, yes, even more so than my recent 18 day trip through Europe and Scandinavia. In no small part, that was due to airfare, the size of the country and the pace at which I was traveling but it also had a lot to do with the general cost of, well, everything.
Street Food – I love street food. Yeah, that stuff that comes out of a cart, people are afraid will kill them, and which usually tastes absolutely delicious all for dirt cheap. I had mental images of incredible street side vendors selling mouth watering food lining Buenos Aires’ grand avenues. Unfortunately, they don’t exist. Apparently they’re banned from operating in the city (possibly the entire country). I was incredibly disappointed. On the upside, the classic Argentine grills/holes in the wall do exist, typically boasting a large open faced grill covered in the meat(s) and cut(s) of the day.
Steaks – Argentinian steak especially “Bife de Chorizo” really is as good as everyone makes it out to be. However, to really find a good steak you’re going to need to hunt for it and take care in how you order it. I ate a LOT of steak during my trip but unfortunately I didn’t figure out how to order it until about half way in. In your standard cafe or low-mid range restaurant in Buenos Aires they will consistently do two things. Under salt, and over cook. When you order make sure that you specify that you want it medium-rare or pink, they probably wont ask and the default is a great way to waste an even better steak. It also never hurts to make sure the steak is properly salted to really bring out the flavor. Also, don’t assume that price means anything. Some of the best steaks I had were also some of the cheapest. Similarly some of the worst were the most expensive. Also, the stories of $3 steaks? They’re a lie. Expect to pay at least $7 and usually closer to $12/meal for a decent steak in any of the main cities.
Spices – Sure, its a bit dense of me but I honestly assumed all of Latin/South America was powered by strong spices with a passion for spicy food. Not Argentina. In practice they avoid anything spicy like the plague.Even the various spiced sauces they serve with meats and meals is a bland, but flavorful mixture of spices and ground peppers without any bite or zing.
Buses – I’m a train guy. To say that I didn’t like traveling by bus before Argentina is an understatement. That said, you don’t take the trains in Argentina. It took me a long time and a lot of conversations to finally be dissuaded, but it’s the simple truth of the matter. You fly, take a bus, a ferry or a taxi. That’s the bad news. The good news is, if you spend a little extra for an upgrade and skip the chicken buses, the buses are actually fantastic. They are clean, modern, surprisingly fast, and if you invested in a cheap upgrade you’ll find great food service and an experience that rivals a commuter 1st class on an airline. Those 17 and 26 hour bus rides you hear about? They’re not a bundle of fun, but they’re not nearly as dreadful as you might imagine.
Distance – While this can’t quite be considered a real surprise, it bears repeating. Argentina is large. Very large. Massive in fact and getting around isn’t the worlds easiest (or hardest) task. The nation is also dominated by two major airlines and lacks any major budget airline presence. So, you’re either left with long-leg, sometimes multi-day bus rides or somewhat expensive flights. It sucks. It’s also totally worth it.
Tours & Trips – There’s a lot in Argentina you can do on your own as a traveler. There’s also a lot that you can’t or really just shouldn’t. For some of you jumping on a guided tour of something may be par for the course, for others it may be the last thing you want to do. Especially if that tour is relatively expensive ($50-$200 USD). Do your research, but when it comes down to it, if you’re doing Argentina you need to bite the bullet and do it. Two of my favorite experiences on the trip were my Penguin adventure and guided hike to the center of the Perito Moreno Glacier. Neither was something I could have done on my own, and both were well worth their near budget-busting price points. I spent the extra $50 to do the on-glacier hike, which was a full $130 more than just visiting the national park’s boardwalk across the bay. It was worth it. It was incredible. Similarly, the extra money I spent for a guided tour out to an island with 4,000 penguins on it. It was slightly more expensive. It was guided. It was the only one that landed on the island and gave us an hour 2 feet away from the Penguins. They only allow 40 people on the island a day. Of the places that I visited where I didn’t need a guide and can be done freestyle I strongly suggest doing Tierra del Fuego National Park, the hikes around El Chalten, and Iguazu Falls.
Language – One thing that took me by slight surprise was how difficult it was to speak English in Argentina. Which is not to say that it was difficult to get around, only that it is fairly common that most Argentinians only speak limited English or none at all. While this can be a slight challenge in taxi-cabs and elsewhere, I never found it to be anything more slightly surprising. For those more familiar with traveling in parts of Mexico or Europe, be aware that you may have to do a little more work to ask questions, seek directions, or engage in conversations. Luckily the Argentinians are delight, friendly and welcoming people.
Must See Destinations
While I feel a bit guilty in constructing this list I have to admit that there wasn’t a single stop along my trip which I would have skipped or shortened. For the specifics of each stop along the way I encourage you (if you haven’t already) to read my blog posts on that leg of the trip. You’ll note that Buenos Aires is NOT at the top of my list despite being a required starting point for any trip through Argentina. More on this later.
- Iguazu Falls – This is hands down one of the most, if not the most, spectacular place I’ve ever been. I’m a huge waterfall guy and these falls did absolutely nothing to disappoint. Even if your skeptical about major tourist destinations, this will impress, awe and amaze. It’s a bit hard to get to but well worth the effort.
- Perito Moreno Glacier – The Andes are incredible, Glaciers are spectacular and the Perito Moreno Glacier combines the best of both. Accessed through El Calafate this was an amazing experience. Don’t just settle for seeing the glacier though, make sure you book a tour and hike it as well.
- Tierra del Fuego – There’s something magical and exciting about being as far south as you can go without heading to Antarctica. The landscape is beautiful, the weather was energizing, and the chance to see and spend time with wild penguins was fantastic. While not as majestic as other National Parks in the area it’s a great starting point (do it first) and I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Also, as the base for most Antarctica trips, be prepared to want to stow away.
- Buenos Aires – A great city, especially for those who love a European influenced feel and spirit. While the city has some historical draws the main things to see are cultural and revolve around tango performances, social dancing, food, and night life. The city never sleeps and its impossible to experience both the day and night life simultaneously. Set aside a few days to focus exclusively on one, then on the other.
- El Chalten – Located just north of El Calafate the hiking around Mt. Fitz Roy is stunning. If you want nature, awe inspiring grandeur and mountains that look like they’ve been photoshopped this is a must. Make sure to hike, and to set aside some extra time in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.
I’m sure a lot of other travelers who have been to BA will disagree, but I’ve got to beat up on the city a bit. Buenos Aires was one of my most heavily anticipated destinations. It was also the one disappointment on my trip, though I hesitate to say that as it was still delightful and I’d go back in a heartbeat. The people I met in BA were incredible, the dancing I did and saw was absolutely some of the best in the world, and the food I found was great. The night life in BA is also some of the best you’ll find anywhere. The real disappointment for me was the city itself. La Boca was dirty and seemed more like a cheesy ride at Disneyland. People often compare BA to the Paris of the Americas. I disagree. I wasn’t overly impressed and found it to be more like a dirty, run down version of Madrid than anything. The old districts and the San Telmo market are great, but they’re nothing special. In truth, that’s how I felt about the majority of the city. The main architectural and historical tourist draws are interesting, if nothing to write home about. So, my final verdict? It’s a great city with a lot to offer, the safety and security concerns are over stated, but so-too is the city’s character and personality. Go instead for the food, the people, the dance, and the people’s culture.
Argentina is spectacular. There’s no other way to put it. If you’re a person drawn to natural beauty, rich culture, or food you need to put Argentina at the top of your list. The language barrier can be more pronounced than in some other areas, but its never insurmountable and always worth it. I’d go back in a heartbeat and know that for as much as I fit into my brief trip, there’s much, much more which I missed. I highly encourage you to peruse my videos, photos and previous posts documenting my time in Argentina and invite you to ask any question you may have. Have an amazing trip and enjoy the adventure!
Debating going? Head on over to Amazon and pick up the Lonely Planet Guide to Argentina.