Awe Inspiring Argentina – A Video Blog

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

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.

My Argentina Trip in Review – Analyzing One of the World’s Greatest Destination Countries

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.

Dinner Cooking - Ushuaia, Argentina

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.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

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.

Penguin with Woman - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Surprises

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.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires

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.

Tucan in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

Final Thoughts

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.

Christmas Eve and Buenos Aires Bound

Valley Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

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.

El Chalten

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.

Christmas Eve

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.

El Calafate Airport - Patagonia, Argentina

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.

Tallying Up The Cost: 21 Days In Argentina

El Calafate Airport - Patagonia, Argentina

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

Total: $3,933.10

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.

Safe travels, open roads!

Argentina Photos Posted

The Photographer, Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Hello all! I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve completed uploading a select 425 photos from my recent Argentina trip. The photos cover Buenos Aires, Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego), El Calafate/El Chalten (Patagonia) and Iguazu.  I’ll be embedding many of the photos in my blog posts about the trip which will start to go live in the next week.

Can’t wait until then or want to make sure you don’t miss any?  Head on over to the flickr album now and let me know which are your favorites!

Packing List for Argentina – 21 Day Backpacking and Hostel Trip

The following is my packing list for a 21 day backpacking trip through Argentina in December and early January. The video goes through each item I’ll be taking and highlights how and why I decided to take it.

This packing list is in preparation for a trip to Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, El Calafate, and Iguazu in December and early January.