Bordering five other South American countries, Argentina is a vast and varied land offering an unforgettable cultural experience to its visitors.
Argentina is located in the southern half of south America and with an area of almost three million square kilometres and a population of thirty five million, it is the eighth largest country in the world and the second largest in Latin America. It is separated from Chile by the Andes on the west and is bordered on the north by Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. To the east the Rio de la Plata separates it from Uruguay and to the south it shares Tierra del Fuego with Chile.
Understandably, a country this vast with so many natural elements will have an extremely diverse and varied landscape. But Argentina’s history is almost as colourful as its natural attractions.
It was first occupied by Europeans in 1516 and in 1580 the Spaniards established a permanent colony where the capital, Buenos Aires, stands today. Since the arrival of these first European visitors to Argentina, immigration has featured highly in its development and it is for this reason that there are so many districts today which are completely occupied by descendants of various European origins.
In the centuries that have elapsed since the first settlers arrived, however, the country has experienced more political turmoil than the Spanish leaders could ever have imagined. Numerous military coups were responsible for the overthrow of several different governments and it was one such coup which led to the legendary Juan Peron coming into power. He was responsible for many positive developments in Argentina but he too was overthrown, you can probably guess how. He was, however, re-elected twenty years later.
Between the time of his death in 1974 and 1989, things were not all that bright for the Argentines, but particularly for the military. Serious economic problems, defeat by the British in the Falklands and charges of corruption completely discredited and discouraged them and led to a gradual move towards democratic rule. This finally came about in October 1983 and since then the ban on political parties had been lifted.
Food & Drink
The bad news for all you veggies is that the Argentine folk believe that no meal is complete without meat and, the more disgusting the source, the better. Take for example, parrillada – the national favourite. This particular delicacy is a mixed grill whose ingredients consist of steak and assorted entrails. The usual accompaniments include small intestines (chinchulines), the large intestine (tripa gorda), the udder (ubre), the kidneys (riñones), the tongue (lengua), the brain (sesos), blood sausage (morcilla) and to top the whole concoction off you can have mollejas (sweetbreads). In fact the only part of a cow which they do not eat in one form or another is the lung. Maybe if I had just given you the local name there might have been the slightest chance that this dish could be appetising. Now, however, it would appear to be a lost cause, unless you have tendencies akin to Hannibal Lecter that is.
Other favorites which come to us compliments of the humble cow are grilled steak (bife de chorizo), sirloin steak (lomo), and small chunks of barbecued beef served with fried potatoes (tira de asado). These come with a salad and a local red wine which is called vino tinto.
Thankfully the immigrants who have helped shape Argentine culture have also made their mark on the cuisine. The Italian community have introduced their favourites of lasagne, cannelloni and ravioli as well as the local speciality of ñoquis (gnocchi in Italian). This is a traditional meal at the end of the month in Argentina and it for this reason that they are a common restaurant special on the 29th of each month.
Several regions also have their own particular type of cuisine. Spicy dishes from the Arab and Middle Eastern schools of cookery are popular in Mendoza and in the north of the country. In the south, you will find that lamb and mutton dishes prevail over the variety which require beef. River fish are excellent in the northeast and considering how much beef the natives eat, you will probably have your choice of the tastiest and freshest fish every time.
Argentina is also renowned for its excellent wines and because it is popular locally as well as world wide, prices have remained very reasonable. You should try a red from the Mendoza area if you are partial to a glass of wine, if not you might be better off with another favourite – coffee. Be careful though, they serve it exceptionally strong so when ordering you should ask for a cortado, which is brewed using a little milk to curb the strength. The fruit juices are also delicious so if you are a tee totaller, you will have much better luck than the poor vegetarians.
Getting There and Around
The main airport for Argentina is in Buenos Aires is Aeropuerto Internacional Misnistro Pistarini but it is more commonly known as Ezeiza. All the major international airlines which fly to Argentina fly to this terminal and the airport itself is situated just outside the city. Some regional flights also fly to Aeroparque which is situated near Ezeiza and several other cities have international airports which serve mainly domestic destinations.
The fact that Argentina borders so many countries also means that a large number of land and river crossings connect it to its South American neighbours. Several airlines fly between the main airport and the Chilean capital of Santiago, some provincial lines also fly to the smaller cities. If you enter by land you will probably have to make a journey through the Andes, and adventure in itself. Most of the other border countries including Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia have limited air connections to Argentina so travel by bus or ferry, where possible, is usually a much better alternative.
Travel around the country
Bus terminals are usually pretty easy to find in the major cities although in some cases they are kind of stuck somewhere downtown. For long journeys you will be happy to hear that the buses are comfortable and efficient and some even have recliners but being a budget traveller these probably will not apply to you as they are much more expensive. Not to worry, the regular service is more than adequate to take you around and so is the seating. To find out about times, fares, destinations etc. you should go to the terminal where all this information is posted in a place that should be easy to find. When it comes to local travel, however, the news is not as pleasing. They are usually packed full with the locals, stop every other minute and as a result even the simplest journey can take quite a while to complete. Nevertheless, this is part of the cultural experience so sit back, if you can get a seat, and enjoy it.
Most passenger rail services in Argentina are no longer in operation because of heavy susidies which have been in existence for years. At the moment, the government is cutting these subsidies and letting each individual state take over the running of the network. The problem with this is that they cannot afford to maintain and operate their section. As a result, while the situation is improving, it is a long way from ideal and with the huge distances involved with travel within Argentina it is not practical to use an unreliable service.
Again with countries as vast as Argentina, internal air travel sometimes proves unavoidable but it is extremely expensive. While other domestic airlines have recently commenced business in direct competition with the two national airlines Aerolineas Argentianas and Austral causing prices to drop, it is still not an ideal option for the budget backpacker. If you do have to avail of this service, try and get a discount deal or pass where possible.
Although the falls lie between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, Argentina is privileged to have most of them on their border. While it is recommended that you see them from both sides, you do need a visa to travel to Brazil and you will see more than enough to fascinate you while still in Argentina. They are located in the northwest of the Missiones and consist of 275 falls, some reaching as high as seventy metres. Added to this is the fact that they are surrounded by the National Park, a virgin jungle protecting over four hundred species of wildlife and over two thousand flora species.
The local area is also famous for its historic ruins of Jesuit missions which were built by San Ignacio Mini and attract thousands of visitors every year. And you should also avail of the variety of water sports which you can participate in above the falls. These include canoeing and kayaking so for all you water lovers, the falls have everything to offer.
Mar del Plata
If you are looking for a beach holiday, Mar del Plata, situated about four hundred kilometres from Buenos Aires, is where you need to book.With forty seven kilometres of Atlantic coastline, the only problem you will have is trying to decide which beach to choose from. The most popular are the Southern Beaches and the Lighthouse Beaches and the Punta Mogotes. The latter contains four kilometres of sand, twenty four different beach resorts and all the paraphernalia that comes attached – shops, restaurants and water sports, which are performed in the artificial lakes in the area. You should also visit the Sea Lions Reservation, built to protect the animals in question and the first of its kind in South America. This settlement is located on a little beach on the coast of the south pier. And, if you don’t fancy this reservation in particular, there are several others in the area, which focus on the protection of the natural flora and fauna of Argentina.
Located in the far south of Argentina, the Moreno Glacier is the main attraction in the Los Glaciares National Park. It is also probably the only glacier in the world to have been subjected to a major bombing mission. The reason for this was the fact that there was a change in climate in the area which resulted in the glacier moving, damming the Brazo Rico lake and causing grave concern for the inhabitants in the surrounding area. Unfortunately for the locals, the bomb was a complete disaster so this amazing feature is still there for your viewing pleasure. You will stop off at the isolated settlement of Calafate which is a desolate spot making its living from the tourists. You will probably only stay a few hours but it is definitely worthwhile and it is best viewed in December when the weather is warmer and frequent collapses occur along the sixty metre high and three mile wide glacier.
Tierra del Fuego (The Land of Fire)
This archipelago is located at the southern extreme of South America and ownership is shared by Argentina and Chile. It consists of one large and several tiny islands, separated by inlets and channels and is an area steeped in history and natural beauty. The first European to visit Tierra del Fuego was Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 and it was he who gave it its English name as a result of the beach fires the aborigines were making to cook and keep warm. While it is rather cold and bleak, the scenery is breathtaking and the Fjords on the Andean coastline along the Beagle Channel and the Strait of Magellan are as impressive as any of those in Scandinavia. Because the roads are so poor and there is no rail network, interconnection with the world outside is by sea or by air so it is not the easiest place to get to. The good news, however, is that if you do make it to Tierra del Fuego it will be well worth your trip.
Now that you are in the homeland of the soccer legend, Diego Maradonna, and in the country that have twice won the world cup it would be absolutely unforgivable not to check out some of the football games on offer in the cities throughout Argentina. The capital, Buenos Aires, is probably the best location to catch a soccer game. It has eight first division teams and standing room at one of these games will probably cost you around US$10. The most popular team in this part of the world is the Boca Juniors, although River Plate is also a favourite among the locals. Other sports on offer in the bigger cities include rugby, basketball, hockey, motor racing, cycling and tennis but none of these are quite as exciting or hold as much appeal for the Argentines as the beautiful game.
Tran a la Nubes (Train to the Clouds)
This is one of the top tourist attractions in Argentina but is a long day so be prepared. You start at the railway station in Salta where your train will leave at exactly 7.05am and take you on your ultimate destination almost thirteen thousand feet above sea level. The scream inducing driving begins almost immediately where you will zig zag your way up a mountain reversing up one way and going forward the other. You will be making three hundred and sixty degree turns to get round the worst bends. The bridges are also quite terrifying as you cannot actually see the tracks on either side as they are so narrow. While approaching your destination at La Polvorilla you will cross a suspended bridge that is almost six hundred feet above the river bed. So, you can see exactly how much of a challenge this journey will be to anyone with even the tiniest fear of height, it is definitely not one for the fainthearted.
While in Argentina, you are going to have to try the native dance – the tango. Originating in this South American country, the tango has become popular all over the world and while you will probably do the tradition a great injustice and completely murder the dance, try it anyway. If nothing else, it will give your spectators a laugh.
Of course, you will need to see how the professionals do it first and as with most other things in the country, the best place for tango is in Buenos Aires. While several establishments portray one of the country’s most famous exports, they can be quite expensive. Therefore you should try to get discounted tickets or attend the free Sunday shows in the various plazas.
If, on the other hand, you would prefer to stick to what you know, the good news is that there are more than enough discos and bars where you can display your dancing or singing talents. The clubs in the larger cities and provinces don’t actually get going until between 12.00am and 2.00am and don’t close until after sunrise so you could be in for a pretty long night.
You may well associate South American countries with flamboyant festivals but Argentina actually has very few. All the public holidays are centred around the Roman Catholic liturgical year meaning that the country practically closes down at Easter and Christmas. The other big days in the country are the May Revolution commemoration on May 25th, Malvinas Day on June 10th and Columbus Day which is on October 12th.
The unit of currency used in Argentina is the peso but most places will accept US dollars because since 1992 there is a set exchange rate one peso to one US dollar. Bills are either two, five, ten, twenty, fifty or one hundred pesos and the coins in use are five, ten, twenty five or fifty centavos and one peso.
While there are seventeen indigenous languages spoken in Argentina, the principal language used is Spanish. Italian is also widely understood and there are several Anglo communities.
As a result of its vast size and various geographic factors, Argentina has an extremely varied climate making a visit in any season worthwhile. Its latitude is the main reason for the differences in climate but so too are the extensive mountain ranges and the presence of the sea.
For sun lovers, this country is the perfect choice of destination offering the choice of two summers every year. In general, however, for skiing you do need to visit in the winter months. And, for destinations in Patagonia and Misiones such as the Moreno Glacier and the Iguazu Falls you are best to choose the southern hemispheres winter or spring when it is not so hot and humid. With regards to Buenos Aires, anytime is fine as its main attractions are not season dependent.
Argentina is three hours behind Greenwich Mean Time and two hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
Stores in Buenos Aires are open between 9.00am and 8.00pm from Monday to Friday. In the other cities, some shops open an hour earlier, close for lunch between 12.00 and 4.00pm and reopen until 8.00pm. Most shops will close at 1.00pm on Saturdays and they do not open on Sundays. Government offices are generally open between 9.00am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday.
Banks and bureaux de change open from 10.00pm until 15.00pm and business offices are usually open from 9.00pm and 12.00pm and again from 14.00 in the afternoon until 19.00pm.
Eating establishments are open almost all of the time with the exception of the hours between 02.00 and 06.00 and in restaurants lunch starts from 13.00pm and dinner from 21.00.
Electricity in Argentina operates at 220 volts.
If you are visiting from a country which does not border Argentina, you are exempt from all taxes on articles with a value under US$300 and an additional three hundred if they are purchased in duty free shops within the national territory.
For residents of most countries, a current passport is all that you require to enter Argentina. To find out if you do not a visa you should consult your nearest Embassy or Consulate. If it is a case that you do not you should be issued with free, renewable tourist cards, which are valid for up to ninety days, are on your arrival in the country. If you are not given such a card, however, there is no need to worry that you might be deported as this is not a rule which is strictly enforced.
Almost every municipality and province has a tourist office. These are usually located at the bus terminal or in the main square or plaza in the area. Each province also has its own tourist office in Buenos Aires and these are usually open from Monday to Friday between 9.00am and 5.00pm.
Foreign currency and travellers cheques can be exchanged at banks, exchange shops (casas de cambio), hotels and in both Buenos Aires Airports. Banks and exchange shops offer similar exchange rates but American currency usually commands a better exchange rate and a lower fee than travellers cheques.
Cashing travellers cheques can also prove difficult in the smaller towns. Commissions can be anything up to ten percent so if you want to avoid this, cash them at the issuing bank or company the most popular of which are American Express or Thomas Cook.
You can use the more common credit cards – American Express, Visa, Master Card and Diners Club. And, you can use your ATM card if it is part of the banking network displayed on the machine.
The international calling code for Argentina is 54 so to dial from your home country you would use 00 54 followed by the local number.
The majority of public telephones use tokens called fichas or cospeles and these are available from kiosks and telephone offices (locutorios). You can also use magnetic calling cards called tarjetas which you will get in the same place.
Reverse charge calls are possible from most, but not all, of the long distance offices so you should ensure that the one you are using is before you make the call as the rates are exceptionally high even in the evening and at the weekend.
Encotesa (Correo Argentina), the private postal service in Argentina, has some of the most expensive rates you are every likely to come across. Sending surface mail is a good deal cheaper but it is also a lot less reliable. In short, you really would not want to rely too highly on the postal service in this particular country.
You should tip between five and ten percent of your restaurant bill but you do not need to tip taxi drivers. Hairdressers should be tipped about five percent and hotel porters and doormen should receive a tip equivalent to US$1. Hotels include a service charge in all bills for rooms.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Argentina they take place on January 1st, April 12th, Good Friday, Easter Monday, May 1st and 25th, Jun 10th and 18th, July 9th, August 16th, October 16th and December 8th and 25th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.