When I set out to explore Argentina over the course of a 21 day trip in December 2010 I was drawn by the stories I had heard of Buenos Aires. Stories of passion, romance, great food and tango dancing so sensual it would leave you with goose bumps. I expected Buenos Aires to be the highlight of my trip, and the place I’d fall in love with during my visit. The embarrassing truth is that the time I set aside for exploring the rest of the country was done almost as an after thought – an added bonus if you will.
Wow was I wrong. While Buenos Aires is an incredible city, the Argentina I fell in love with is the Argentina I experienced in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, and Misiones. These regions feature some of the most incredible scenery I’ve seen anywhere on the globe, but don’t take my word for it – here’s footage I shot featuring four of my favorite destinations:
1. Iguazu Falls (Misiones)
This somewhat difficult to reach series of falls is often ranked as the 2nd most impressive waterfall in the world just behind Victoria Falls in Africa. The falls are one of the few “must visit in your lifetime” destinations I suggest to everyone. As an added bonus, if you get lucky it’s sometimes possible to swim on a small beach along San Martin island. Cool right?
2. El Chalten & Mt. Fitz Roy (Patagonia)
The area around El Chalten is stunning. The colors of the rocks in the mountains give off rich colors while seeming to glow. The rock formations are mind boggling and the combination of exotically colored river water, glaciers, and rugged peaks will leave you awed.
3. Perito Moreno Glacier (Patagonia)
This massive glacier is located just a few miles outside of El Calafate. The clean whites and deep rich blues of this glacier are captivating. The towering mountains on either side humbling. The flowers in bloom and waterfalls flowing down and into the glacier amazing. When you visit, make sure to do a hike out onto the glacier. You won’t be disappointed!
4. The Beagle Channel (Tierra del Fuego)
Accessed through Ushuaia, the world’s most southern city and gateway to Antarctica, this video features a day trip out to a small island that serves as home to more than 4,000 penguins from two species. It also highlights spring in one of the world’s most southern locales.
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!
When I announced my plans to travel to Argentina I knew immediately that there were several friends I absolutely had to get in touch with. One was Kellen, a friend who had spent 3 months the previous summer in Buenos Aires as part of a fantastic study abroad program. He had honed his Spanish, danced up a storm, and met a bunch of amazing people.
When I told him about my plans I was immediately greeted by a giant smile which quickly transitioned into a list of places to see, foods to eat and friends that I needed to meet. One of those friends was Kellen’s Argentine tango instructor and good friend, Rodrigo.
Kellen quickly connected Rodrigo and me on Facebook and we began to chat. The one catch? English wasn’t one of the languages he spoke and…well…my Spanish could be called a lot of things but fluent is definitely not one of them. Not to despair though, where there’s a will there is always a way. Before long we’d friended each other on Facebook and using my very basic Spanish and Google translate we were able to get acquainted and chat away.
By the time I arrived in Buenos Aires I had a list of tips, places to see, and suggestions from Rodrigo which were a huge help. The real fun started during my third and final time in Buenos Aires when our schedules finally aligned. We set a time and place to meet. As it worked out it was about a 10 minute walk from my hostel, located in the heart of the Palermo district.
I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous. Here I was standing on a street corner in a fairly quiet part of Buenos Airies at 11pm waiting to meet someone I’d only seen photos of on Facebook. I didn’t have a phone, didn’t know for a fact if I was in the right spot or not, and wasn’t sure how well we’d be able to communicate given the absence of Google Translate. Over the previous two weeks I’d spent in Argentina a lot of my Spanish had come back to me, but would it be enough?
As an odd assortment of people walked by I’m sure I left a few feeling uneasy as I tried to make inquisitive eye contact while making that haphazard “is it you?” face. Eventually Rodrigo arrived and with a warm smile introduced himself. We said hello and chatted with each other breaking through the initial awkwardness that makes communicating hard. As we (or perhaps more I) started to relax we began walking and he told me that it was too early to Tango yet (yep, 11pm is the Argentine equivalent of 6pm elsewhere!) but he had a few friends he wanted me to meet.
A five minute walk brought us to an apartment where I was introduced to several of his friends: A group of several Argentinians and an Israeli exchange student. We quickly got acquainted and made our way to the rooftop terrace where they had a table and set of chairs. The evening air was warm and delightful. It was also still fairly light out as it was the heart of Argentina’s summer.
They had ordered pizza and picked up several liters of soda and beer. As it turned out the evening was a bit of a post New Years Celebration among friends. A celebration I felt very blessed to be included in.
As the meal and conversation transitioned from eating, we prepared for a bit of dancing. The table was moved to the side, the ipod switched to Tango music, and the performances and lessons were on!
Despite my background in Ballroom and focus in Latin dance, Argentine Tango has always eluded me. Which is to say that even the basic was something that I had previously only seen, but never danced. The beat, the rhythm, the flow, it was all new and I quickly found myself more than a little confused. Luckily under the guidance of Rodrigo, and several of his patient friends, I learned the basic box and at least started to get a feel for the dance while only periodically mangling the poor girl’s toes.
Once sufficiently satisfied that I’d gotten the basics down to Argentine Tango and sensing my background in slightly more fast paced/constantly paced dances they introduced me to the Milonga. This dance, which shares the same name as many of the city’s tango venues, is a faster, constant version of the tango. Wikipedia explains the Milgona as, “Milonga,(in 2/4 time) has a strongly accented beat, and sometimes an underlying “habanera” rhythm. Dancers avoid pausing, and often introduce double time steps (incorrectly called syncopation and more appropriately called traspies) into their walks and turns. Milonga dancing uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than some danced in other varieties of tango. Some tango instructors say that tango steps should not be used in milonga and that milonga has its own special rhythm and steps, which are quite different from tango.”
While the beat was easier to relate to for me, I have to admit that the speed and execution left me more than a little baffled and confused. Still, it was a fantastic introduction to a dance which was both passionate, engaging, and exciting as well as being an entirely new dance for me.
To my surprise we finished the lessons out with a third and far more traditional dance, the chacarera (I believe). The dance was a zero contact partner dance which resembled a traditional waltz or Victorian era dance. A fun line dance of sorts, it consisted of a number of turns, pauses, a bit of tap dancing, and then a final salute which left both partners near embrace without touching. While I initially thought it was just a fun cultural dance they were sharing with me, later I’d learned that it was actively used and danced in the Milongas.
As 3:30AM quickly approached Rodrigo and I said our goodbyes and our thank yous before setting off into the night. I assumed that we were probably done with the evening, but quickly realized that it had just started. As we made our way back out to the street he explained that the good tango clubs in the area were just getting going. Before long we arrived at one such venue, located in the spacious basement/bar area of a large building. The area was packed with a ring of small tables lining a large rectangular dance floor. My guide quickly chatted with one of the local waiters, who he obviously knew, and found us a seat.
Before long we were joined by two German girls we had bumped into on the walk over and had been introduced to by one of Rodrigo’s friends who had decided to call it a night. The girls were in Argentina learning Tango and quickly took the dance floor where Rodrigo launched them into a series of fantastic routines. His tango was skillful and an absolute delight to watch.
As the night went on the venue would play a series of 5 songs back to back before some sort of old rock jam would blast on as a sign to rotate or take a break. Then every 10th song or so they would play an Chacarera or two, which were equally fun to watch! Though possessed of a flimsy understanding of the bare basics for both, I have to admit that I opted to sit, relax and watch the dancers without ever joining them. Perhaps after a chance to practice a bit more, and to force the basics of Argentine tango into my memory, I’ll be up for the challenge.
By 5:30AM I could barely keep my eyes open and the wear and tear on my body from the previous week’s travels and New Years festivities came crashing down upon me. I bid the girls goodnight, thanked Rodrigo for one of the most delightful evenings I’d had in Argentina, and began my walk home.
He was a truly wonderful host and one who patiently put up with my dreadful Spanish and bad jokes while sharing his culture, music and dance with me. My first night at an Argentine Milonga will always stand out as one of my favorite dance experiences and easily one of my fondest memories from Buenos Aires.
**The photos in this post are of Rodrigo and his dance partners used with permission from his facebook. Impressive ehh?
Inspired to learn a bit of Tango or at least listen to some? Browse Amazon’s digital Tango Music library.
With that keen sense of despair gnawing at the edge of my mind, I gradually began to internalize that my trip to Argentina was nearing its conclusion. Anything but ready to leave Argentina behind I relished every remaining moment I had, and to be fair, those remaining moments promised grand adventures including a visit to La Boca, a stunning tango show, live tango dancing with locals, a bizarre amusement park and of course New Years celebrations! After a 17 hour plus bus ride back to Buenos Aires from Puerto Iguazu I settled into my new hostel in the Palermo district. After getting settled I had the Hostel’s front desk call and book a reservation for me at Cafe de los Angelitos – one of Buenos Aires famous cafes offering live, choreographed Tango performances. While more expensive (the show was 300 ARS or about $75 USD and offered an option for 450 ARS which included dinner) my local friend and tango instructor Rodrigo had suggested it, which left little doubt in my mind. Eager to find a hole in the wall for dinner and already smarting from the sticker price of the show alone I opted for the show, sans the meal.
As a latin and ballroom dancer the opportunity to see a live Argentina Tango performance stood out as one of the key draws which had driven me to book my Argentina trip. Though my relationship with Tango has always been with International/American Tango I love watching Argentina Tango and have the utmost respect for it. In 2007 as a semi-accidental discovery I caught Tango Fire, a touring Argentina Tango troupe, while they were performing in London. The show was mesmerizing, simple, sensual, and a magical melding of love music, dance and physical artistry. It set a high bar and is a fond memory – one which I was eager to match or surpass.
Unsure what to expect and regretting the lack of more formal clothing I put on my black dress shirt, cleaned up, and hopped in a cab. I’d battled with the decision to take my camera’s with me, and given the semi-formal setting eventually opted (much to my later lament – the photos in this post are from their website) to leave them at home. As we sped through the streets and across town I chatted with my Cab driver, a gentleman who was as much tour guide as cabbie and every bit the proud Argentine. He extolled the virtues, history and reputation of Cafe de los Angelitos and then told me I absolutely had to return to the Cafe another evening for one of the live musical performances (next trip my friend!). As we pulled up in front of the cafe I hopped out, bid him goodbye and checked my watch. I was 40 minutes early – whoops! Never one to mind being a bit early, I paused to take in the Cafe before making my way inside.
Cafe de los Angelitos was founded in 1890 and is far more than just a simple cafe. With a formal, though more traditional, cafe in front the venue manages to secret away a large balconied dining room decorated in an ornate 19th century style. The dining room and the connected balconies resemble the general feel of your traditional opera or play house and are carefully laid out to offer a fantastic view of the raised stage. The stage is a beautiful two story thing, with a recessed space for the band and multiple layers allowing fantastic acoustics and the dancers wonderful opportunities to use the set as part of their performances. All of the wait staff are in traditional outfits which offer a turn of the century meets old Victorian Gaucho look.
I checked in and to my delight was escorted to the end seat directly off the center of the stage. Though located near the back of the ground floor it offered me a centered view of the stage and placed me close enough to see everything in perfect detail. I ordered still water and relaxed to people watch as time slipped by. I’d arrived right before the main course was served for those who opted to do the dinner, and I have to confess that the dinner looked superb. Multi-course with oyster appetizers, a large steak, and wonderful assortment of desert options it left my mouth watering.
And then the lights dimmed, plates were cleared away and the stage lights lit the stage. As the lights slowly came up the performers made their way through the crowd before finding their way up onto the stage. They giggled and laughed, chatted and teased each other in character while dressed in beautiful summer clothing. One jovially lugged an early model camera with him while others had umbrellas and tophats in tow. They settled into a group, posed briefly and then with a large flash the Camera went off. From there the picnic evolved into a delightful dance with the five partnerships spinning, twisting, dipping and pausing for a periodic corte. All the while the band, which was located in a recessed enclosure in the center of the stage, played piercing tango music. I was instantly drawn into the performance and found myself on the edge of my seat.
As the night progressed the performances varied. Some were group performances featuring all of the couples, while others were solo or duet pieces. Yet others were pure musical performances and featured one of the two main vocalists. To my delight I’d attended in the hope of seeing a great tango show. As an unexpected bonus I also received a fantastic concert. They sang piecing songs of tragedy, love, passion and desire all set to the heart stopping ballads of live tango music so full of power and energy that you could feel them pulsating in your chest.
With each new performance the women’s costumes changed from traditional gowns to incredible evening dresses that highlighted the dancer’s stunning physiques and left little doubt that they were every bit as sensual and attractive physically as their dancing was captivating. For the men’s part they demanded their place on the stage with puffed out chests, low sitting fedoras, and a mixture of suits that offered their own character and feel. Each time they took the stage a hush drifted over the crowd.
One of my favorite performances began with a dark stage and enchanting vocals. As a spotlight slowly drifted down, it revealed the female singer perched in the band box. Eventually, as though responding to a her song, a lone male dancer took the floor. After a series of solo routines showcasing his talent he appeared to win her over. She slowly walked to the edge of the 2nd story box, gently took a seat, and then to our shock and delight slipped off the edge and down into his waiting arms. From there the song gave way to pure music, and a story told by entwined bodies as they drifted – sometimes fast, sometimes slow – across the dance floor.
Another of my favorites began with a lone woman standing, posing, and then eventually dancing elegantly in front of a sheer curtain. As she danced, the light on the front of the stage would periodically switch from front to back, which in turn highlighted the silhouette of lone male figure. As the dance continued he eventually struck out from behind the curtain where he approached her and was accepted. They danced. Legs entwined in a maze of motion, I quickly realized that the curtain was as much dress as curtain. Made of the same material and color as her dress it found its way to the floor before drawing in to wrap up and around her as part of her dress. Then as he wrapped her in it, the curtain released and fell to the ground leaving the two to wrap themselves in the curtain, dance around it, and unwind themselves before that part of her dress fell away leaving them to do grand dips, lifts and catches. The interplay between light, shadow, the music and each other was fantastic!
Though most of the dances were in deed Argentina Tangos, they also mixed in a number of other pieces which varied from Sambas to sensual rumba-like routines danced in sheer nightgown-esq outfits on a stage obscured by billowing fog machines. The show was everything you would expect and more. Sensual, passionate, entertaining, playful, lustful, moving, and even at times slightly tragic. While it may not have been true street tango it was easily one of the most spectacular performances I’ve ever enjoyed live. I would readily put it head to head with the great musicals and other similarly spirited performances.
The one truly unfortunate aspect of the evening was the service. It was easily the worst I’ve experienced in a long time and by far the worst I experienced in Argentina. I’m not sure if it was due to confusion over whose section I was in, the fact that I was alone, young, male, didn’t purchase the dinner or a combination of all of the above. Regardless it took me more than 50 minutes to get my water, which included flagging down waitstaff 5 times and having them deliver gas water vs. the still I had ordered. During that same period (before the water arrived mid-show) I also ordered a hot tea which took two requests (combined with the water inquiries), over 20 minutes and frustrated complaints before it arrived. Keep in mind this all occurred at a venue charging almost $40 USD for dinner and with ample wait staff on hand. I eventually flagged down a waiter from another section, was forced to complain in broken Spanish, and after repeating my story several times was introduced to a manager who spoke English. She was apologetic, said she would work on it immediately and insisted I accept a free desert in addition to comping my water and hot tea. As the show started the fruit plate arrived, which was a wonderful mixture of sweet kiwi, grapes, mellons, strawberries and blueberries. Unfortunately, and perhaps somewhat comically, even as the plate arrived the one thing I truly wanted – a bottle of still water – took an additional 10 minutes to find its way to me.
While the service was disappointing, frankly rather insulting, and extremely unfortunate I will say that the manager made a decent effort to make it right once it was brought to her attention, was apologetic and despite it all did little to truly diminish the experience. In truth it became more comedy than frustration. Though I’d be far less patient with the service in the future I’d gladly attend the Cafe’s performance again as it was truly magnificent and an experience that was gently enhanced by the feel and ambiance of the venue. For more info feel free to visit Cafe de los Angelito’s website.
Ahhh Buenos Aires. I think I may have fallen in love with your charm!
Reminder: This post is a continuation in my Argentina series. Jump to the previous post: Puerto de Iguazu, Toucans and an Animal Rehabilitation in Argentina or if you’re itching for a bit of tango music check out Tango music on Amazon.
**Please note that all of the photos from Cafe de los Angelitos in this post are theirs and are from their website. As stated in the post, I did not have my camera with me. All rights are retained by the original photographer.
There is some AMAZING stuff in Argentina. The challenge is that unlike other popular tourist destinations in the world they lack A) An established/useful train system and B) A vibrant discount airline system with cheap regional airfare. Two facts which are made that much more difficult by Argentina’s immense size.
The good news is that Argentina has a fantastic bus system. The bad news is, it’s also surprisingly expensive but while you may find the famous chicken buses of Central American fame in some areas, there are usually options for long haul, first and second class buses which offer quality conditions and excellent service. Before I go further, I’ll share with you that I’m a converted skeptic. I’ve done the Guatemalan colectivo adventure, Belizean and Mexican buses. The price was always right, the experience usually an adventure, and the physical discomfort typically a consideration. At 6’4″ I tend to dread most forms of public transport. The thought of a 3 hour bus ride tends to make me grimmace, let alone the 17+ hour bus rides Argentina is famous for.
So, it was with mixed dread that I set to booking my Bus trip from Buenos Aires up to Iguazu in Argentina’s far north. A bus ride that typically takes 17-18 hours each way. Still, the price to fly in and out was about $300 beyond my budget and I’d already blown my spare funds on my flights in the southern part of the country. With no clue what I was doing, I set to the task of booking the BA -> Iguazu leg as everyone had told me that a visit to the Falls was worth it, no matter what. I now gladly give the same advice.
As a quick aside, there IS a train line that goes there. Usually. If you’re like me and had a strong preference for the train, I can only tell you that every piece of advice I got was that the bus was faster, better, and more comfortable. Don’t bother research it, just commit to flying or taking the bus.
What you may not know is that Buenos Aires has a massive multi-story bus station. From their central hub you can travel to just about anywhere in South America. In truth, the station is so large (I believe over 100 bays) that it has several foodcourts and a wealth of shopping venues. Just make sure to arrive early, as finding the right spot and figuring out which bus is yours can be difficult. There’s also usually a shortage of people available to help point you in the right direction.
In my interactions with the Argentinian bus system there are three levels of Bus service on a third through first class scale. Based on my (admittedly limited) interaction with the second class tier, it’s suitable for most traveler’s needs and will be a pleasant surprise for budget backpackers. If you’re looking at a long trip (such as Buenos Aires to Iguazu or the common BA to Bariloche route) a 2nd class ticket is advisable. These tickets typically provide wider seating which reclines at a near 60-70 degree angle, well maintained and air conditioned buses, drop down LCD TV screens (which played American movies in English with Spanish subtitles), and airplane-like meals and drink service. On my 18 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires the crew even provided a complimentary Scotch as a nightcap. The company I traveled with, Crucero del Norte, has a large assortment of pictures available on their website if you’re curious about what the buses look like.
I was so concerned about how miserable the ride might be that I only booked a one way ticket to Iguazu, planning on biting the bullet and booking a return flight if the experience was miserable. Needless to say, not only did I book my return trip on a Bus, but would gladly do it again.
Which brings me to the next key factor. Price. I already mentioned that travel in Argentina, even by bus, was surprisingly expensive. As it turns out locals get a citizen’s price, while tourists are forced to pay a visitors price. Where in many areas there is a tourist based transport infrastructure and a local tourist infrastructure, the transport system in Argentina has combined the two. The bad news is, this means that even if you wanted to travel super budget on a more local-oriented bus system, the option isn’t there. It can also be frustrating because where you’re paying a premium for standard transportation, the locals pricing can be as little as a quarter of the cost for the same ride. On the upside, it’s still affordable and a positive boon for the local economy.
The general price for a one way ticket between BA and Iguazu as of my December 2011 trip was AR 369 for 3rd class (semi-cama), AR 422 for second (Cama) and AR 495 for 1st class (CamaSuite). At an exchange rate of 4 AR pesos to $1 USD that comes out to $92 for 3rd class, $105 for 2nd class and $123.75 for 1st class. So, for 13 dollars more – less than a dollar an hour, I was able to experience a significant upgrade. One which included two (quality) meals, drink and some booze. You’ll note, however, that that’s still $210 for the RT ticket to/from Iguazu which isn’t exactly cheap.
While you should check the accuracy and pricing on your own, I found this list to be extremely helpful and accurate. It shows the time, company, and cost for BA -> Iguazu trips.
I highly recommend Bus travel in Argentina. Don’t let the distances or the fact that it’s bus travel dissuade you from seeing the country’s spectacular natural and cultural beauty.
Questions? Have your own experiences with the bus system to share? Please post them in comment. I’m eager to hear them.
Need a place to stay in Buenos Aires? Consider checking out our affiliate partner: Hostel Inn Tango City.
Upon my return to Buenos Airies I immediately backtracked from the Airport to the hostel I had stayed in previously. Located in the heart of the San Telmo District Tango Backpackers offered familiar/friendly staff, a good location, and excellent facilities. The girl on the front desk, a Bulgarian who had temporarily re-settled in BA, recognized me immediately and welcomed me back with a warm smile. I settled into my room, then set out to explore areas of the City I’d missed previously. It was Christmas day and the world famous Sunday San Telmo outdoor market was taking place near by.
After walking a few blocks to the northwest I stumbled onto the market, which shuts down the entire street and stretches at least a mile across the heart of the city. A narrow cobblestone street it’s lined on both sides with hawkers before eventually dead ending in the main square where the more traditional and established market vendors have their stands set up. There’s also an in-door area but more on that later.
The market is home to everything from small handwoven silver goods, to tango shows and gaucho (Argentinian cowboy) equipment and artifacts. It’s the embodiment of everything I love about outdoor markets, only missing one key element – the food! While you can find just about anything at one of the stands, apparently Buenos Aires has a law against streetside food vendors. As a result the only real food available along the market was fresh pressed orange juice.
Luckily, there’s an old turn of the century style wrought iron marketplace located just off the main square which serves as home to a number of great vegetable, fruit, and meat stands. Sandwiched between old antique shops, and an odd mixture of electric, perfume, and clothing stands they provided a chance for some fresh food. As you’ll note in the picture above, it’s not exactly the most airtight building, as the Pigeons made a strong showing and casually patrolled the space, not unlike local Police officers in their dark blue-gray uniforms.
The level of vibrant color constantly bombarding my senses in the market was absolutely delightful and a fun contrast to the more muted tones I’d grown accustomed to while in the southern part of the country.
It’s impossible to visit Buenos Aires without breathless mention of the Tango dancing, salivating praise for their steaks, and words of caution about the pickpocket scene. While I never had an issue with pickpockets, I was more conscientious than normal. The market isn’t just world famous for its size and antiques, it also has a reputation as a pick-pocket mecca. As I wound my way through the crowd I was always aware of my belongings, and regularly transferred my backpack from my back to my chest. Backpacks in particular are always an easy target and one we usually assume to be a bit safer than our pocket-based wallets.
The collection of People along the route is also a great mixture of characters. Some gorgeous…some colorful. All vibrant and full of life. Of the hawker’s wares some of my favorites included beautiful silver work done with hand woven silver wire often worked in beautiful patterns around polished gem stones and aged fossils. Some even included peacock and parrot feathers. Others created similar works of art but with a waxed, hemp like, multicolored type of thick string gator and jaguar teeth. One gentleman was selling beautiful leather maps, while another sold handcrafted leather bracers and bracelets. Some of the more cultural pieces – vintage Tango posters and the stands with Gaucho saddles, lassos, whips and spurs left me wishing I had the funds, space, and time to make a few purchases.
Starving and a bit frustrated by the lack of any quality food stands, I eventually found a small doorway into a tiny, steaming hole in the wall sandwiched behind two large vendor’s tables. The place boasted the standard open faced grill Argentinians are fond of with a smattering of meat thrown onto it. The place was dingy, the chef a rather hefty older man with sweat tracing its way down his face. Near the door two old men sat and motioned me in as they relaxed and read the paper. I dodged the young waitress as she barreled towards a nearby table balancing a load of plates, and pulled up a chair across from a group of federal police on Lunch break. Slightly intimidating, there were at least 10 when I arrived and over the course of the meal another 6 or so piled in and quickly gobbled up the remaining chairs and tables.
The thoughts you have in a situation like that are always interesting. On the one hand I took their presence as a positive sign that the food was good, and that I was in an extremely safe place. On the other side a little paranoia set in as I processed that with that large a gathering of officers, if anything was going to happen, it would probably be targeting them. If I had been in a place like Israel, or even more dangerous parts of Brazil or Argentina known for active terrorist/drug war attacks and bombings, I’d have probably been nervous enough to debate re-locating. As it was, I ordered the daily special and a coca cola, then settled in to read my book, watch the locals, and relax.
I spent the remainder of the day wandering through Plaza del Mayo, where a group of mothers of vanished political protestors have maintained a longstanding protest. Then wound my way through the districts streets somewhat randomly before striking back towards my hostel.
Once there, I set to the task of booking/exploring and researching the next major leg of my journey. It promised to be somewhat daunting and would be my first major introduction to long distance Argentinian Bus travel.
Stay tuned for a detailed break down of the experience, how to book it, and the costs associated with a RT ticket from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.
After a refreshing nap we washed up and slowly de-frosted our bodies. Then it was time to undertake our next herculean undertaking. Dinner. As I mentioned in a previous post it was Christmas Eve which tends to be the day Argentinians focus most of their Christmas celebrations on. As a result, we were somewhat concerned that most things would be closed. Unfortunately, not only were we right, but we had failed to prepare properly for it earlier in the day. We were completely without food, booze, or a clue as to who would be open and/or serving food.
The city of El Chalten (pictured in near entirety above) is pretty tiny. Luckily, it’s main business is tourism which meant that several of the local hotel restaurants were remaining open and serving Christmas dinner. Unfortunately for our backpacker budgets that also meant that they were running special Christmas dinner meals which started at about $30 and topped out at about $90 USD. Hoping to find something a bit more budget friendly we made our way up and down the town’s two main streets, fighting fierce winds and periodic rain before bumping into a Swiss woman. She was traveling solo and in the midst of a similar search. We said hello, cracked a joke or two, complained about the weather and then invited her to join us. An invitation which she accepted eagerly.
Eventually we found our way to one of the town’s largest hostels which also harbored an attached restaurant. While still fairly pricey, their dinner special looked good and was one of the cheapest in town. We quickly found a table in a corner and settled in for a flavorful meal washed down with wine, beer, and great company. We’d conquered the mountain, survived the weather, had several memorable stories etched into our memories and found food and good companions on the road.
As we finished up our dinner and made our way back out into the wind-raked streets, we headed back towards our hostel. En-route we found a small bar which was just starting to get going. Despite being exhausted from the day’s adventures and with bellies full of food pushing us towards a nap, we ordered another round and settled in to a booth where we continued to exchange stories and get to know the Swiss traveler better.
People often ask how I can travel on Christmas and typically assume that it must be a lonely thing to do. I chuckle as I’ve often found it to be the exact opposite. I’m not Christian so the holiday doesn’t have religious significance to me and a fairly similar sentiment seems to be shared by most of the other travelers on the road over the Christmas holiday. So, for us it’s always about coming together, sharing food, stories, drink and companionship. I spent Christmas 2008 in Spain drinking champagne on the beach before partaking in a fantastic, vibrant, and lively hostel potluck which lasted late into the night. I spent Christmas Eve 2009 having just arrived into a small Belizean port town after a 3 day 2 night sailing trip down their barrier reef. The evening was full of food, drink, live music and delightful conversation. 2010 was no different, as we sat in a vibrant room with three separate cultures represented. In many ways it’s like a driftwood masterpiece. We all come from different lives and backgrounds. Our route to that place and that time takes a wealth of forms, but when all of the pieces come together, the combination is perfect.
Eventually, exhausted, the other American and I decided to leave the Norwegian and Swiss girl to their flirting and strike back towards the hostel. With the wind to our back and each gust extending our steps by a good foot, we made it about half way before coming upon an incredible sight. The wind had blown loose a powerline which was laying in the street. Undaunted by the wind and obvious danger two of the locals had pulled up a cherry picker with a bucket and were in the midst of repairing the power line. This despite gusting winds that threatened to dump the guy in the bucket on his head, or yank loose one of the other power lines. Electrocution and decapitation risk aside, it made for quite the sight. One that I was eager to get as far away from as quickly as possible. Preferably before someone got crushed to death, cut in half, or electrocuted.
The following morning I crawled out of bed, said my goodbyes and headed to the bus station for an early bus back to the El Calafate Airport. My stay in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia had been incredible. The people were delightful, the food delicious and the natural scenery some of the best I’ve ever experienced.
Eventually after running into a few issues with a LAN airways strike, and mis-communication, I paid my $4 airport special use tax, boarded a plane and was Buenos Aires bound. Once there I’d spend two nights in the hostel I’d used during my previous visit before researching an overnight bus to the country’s far north to see the falls of Iguazu.
What does a breakneck, budget conscious, adventure trip through Argentina cost? Here’s the financial break down from my recently completed 21 day trip. These figures cover all of my direct trip expenses (they don’t include equipment I already had such as shoes and a backpack). Travel period: December 15th – January 4th.
This trip visited Buenos Aires (3 times), Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, El Calafate/El Chalten in Patagonia and Iguazu in Misiones.
Argentina is commonly hailed as an extremely cheap destination. While I’d agree that by western standards it is a relatively cheap destination it is not, by Latin American standards, cheap. At best I’d flag it as moderately priced. As I understand it the nation has seen massive inflation in the last half-decade, particularly in its tourism infrastructure. An infrastructure which operates as part of their greater transportation infrastructure, but with deep discounts for locals and natives.
The size of the country also contributes significantly to the cost of exploring it in depth. While Argentina has a train infrastructure, it is limited and tourists are widely encouraged to avoid it. Similarly, the country has a decent air infrastructure, but it is only serviced by 3 major airlines. Of which the government influenced Aerolineas is the primary provider. The other significant provider is LAN Airlines. Unfortunately, there are no ultra-budget airline providers as can be found in Europe and parts of the US which make flights fairly expensive. On the upside, Aerolineas offers a tourist pass which allows you to buy discount credits. While not vastly cheaper, for anyone flying the minimum of 3 legs it is a viable option.
Lastly it is important to note that Bus travel is the primary method for long distance travel in Argentina. While relatively slow compared to high speed rail or air travel the long distance bus system in Argentina was surprisingly pleasant albeit somewhat expensive. Even my 18 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Iguazu was a relative pleasure with the level of service and comfort well above what I’ve grown used to while flying. For a little bit more (~420 vs ~360 Pesos) I opted for the S/Cama or near-bed service which allowed me a full night’s sleep (almost unheard of when I fly/do trains). On the BA -> Iguazu leg they served complimentary Scotch, beer and wine in addition to two meals and a beverage service. The bus also boasted several TV screens which played American movies with Spanish subtitles. For those visiting and on a budget, don’t rule them out if you’ve got the time to travel a little slower. Make sure to read through Wikipedia’s writeup on Transport in Argentina.
The Raw Figures
ATM (Cash) – $1,680.40
Bank Fees – $27
Credit Cards – $256.99
Airfare – $1,968.71
Argentina is a Credit Card phobic country. That means that $1.25 stick of bubble gum you’d normally purchase with your Credit Card in the States is going to have to be a cash purchase. Most larger purchases (over $10 USD) can be put on a Credit Card though it is surprisingly hit or miss. This in large part accounts for the $27 in added bank fees I had to pay. Though that figure is misleading as that’s only the fees charged by my domestic bank. Each transaction also had an added 16 Peso ($4) fee charged by the Argentinian bank and my domestic bank adds a 3% currency “exchange” fee. Ouch. Especially since my Capital One Credit Card doesn’t have any international use penalties.
Note that a full half of my trip expense was for Airfare. Of the actual on-trip expenses, the Cash/Credit Card fees include several major purchases. These include $200 for the Big Ice Glacier Trek in El Calafate, Approximately $150 combined in Ushuaia for Penguin and Tierra del Fuego National Park tours, $80 for an amazing Tango show at Cafe de los Angelitos in BA, an extra $50 in accommodation over hostel prices during Christmas in El Chalten and $200 for round trip Bus travel from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.
Concerning airfare: I took a total of four flights. They were a mixture of round trip, one-way and progressive tickets. They were as follows:
-Phoenix to Los Angeles Return
-Los Angeles to Buenos Aires Return
-Buenos Aires to Ushuaia / El Calafate to Buenos Aires
-Ushuaia to El Calafate One Way
In general the remainder of my expenses went to food, drink, entertainment, accommodation and minor transport. All accommodation was hostel based and with 1 exception ranged between $10-$20 USD.
In Buenos Aires only use “Radio Taxis” and don’t set a custom price unless you’re doing a long haul trip and know what is reasonable. In general, relying on the meters was a much more cost effective option. Of the 3 times I negotiated my own fare I came to realize later that I’d paid almost double what it would have cost otherwise.
Hopefully this helps you plan your adventure to Argentina. Questions or areas you’d like more in-depth information about? Please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer what I can.
For those who are regular readers, you may note that this was the most expensive trip I’ve taken so far. This was in large part due to the egregious airfare costs associated with the trip and fast rate of travel. Faster = more expensive every time.